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FIRST LOOK: Apex unveils Insta-worthy London suite

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Apex Hotels has unveiled the Temple Suite in London that has been designed with Instagram in mind… 

Following the Hotel Designs’ series, Designing Instagrammable, Apex Hotels has revealed a sneak peek at the fabulous, ‘Instagrammable’ interiors that lie within the £6 million extension to its hotel on London’s Fleet Street.

The Temple Suite is considered the jewel in the crown of the multi-million pound extension, which also boasts four deluxe Grand Suites. Each one is perfect for those looking for a new type of luxury in the capital, and those who want to witness #interiordesigngoals first-hand.

While the Grand Suites are already available to book, the outstanding Temple Suite has been kept under wraps – but now the first images have been released, showing exactly what potential guests can expect when the space opens for booking on March 3.

It includes original fireplaces, bespoke furnishings in rich jewel tones, luxury linens and a bathroom (complete with underfloor heating) that’s just begging for mirror-selfies to be snapped.

Image credit: Apex Hotel

Set within a Grade II listed building on the capital’s Fleet Street, dating back to 1912, the Temple and Grande Suites sit alongside ‘The Amicable Society of Lazy Ballerinas’ – a brand new stylish, decadent wine bar – and private dining rooms to really give guests a taste of the ‘suite’ life.

Guests can cosy up in the coolest of surroundings in the Temple Suite, which features a sophisticated grey colour palette that is injected with warmth thanks to the original parquet flooring and wall panelling.

There’s a chance to relax on Scandi-inspired, bold furniture upholstered in rich velvets and textured wools, whilst snapping away at contemporary features including striking pendant lighting, and the intricately detailed glassware and accessories dotted throughout.

Image credit: Apex Hotels

Before languishing in luxury with access to a personal concierge service, guests can be whisked straight into their suite for a private, queue-free check-in before settling in with a welcome drink, testing out the luxury linens and making the most of the sumptuous surroundings – including a totally personalised mini-bar.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to reveal the striking Temple Suite which, along with our Grand Suites, has come as a result of a meticulous, multi-million pound restoration and refurbishment of the stunning Grade II listed building situated right next door to our original Fleet Street hotel,” Karl Mitchell, General Manager at Apex Temple Court Hotel. “Not only are each of the suites entirely Instagram-worthy, with beautiful furnishings and facilities masterminded by our architects, ISA; each and every guest who stays within the suites will enjoy a totally bespoke stay – from a private check-in and access to a personal concierge, to a mini-bar stocked with their favourite tipples and much more. No two stays will be the same.

“Just imagine lazing in front of the fire with your favourite drink from the personalised mini bar…it’s just one of the blissful ways our guests can spend a stay at our magnificent suites.”

Guests looking for a new type of luxury in London can now book to stay at the 115 square metres of pure, opulent relaxation that is the stand-alone Temple Suite – or at one of the four Grande Suites.

 

5 ways to use storytelling to increase hotel revenue

800 533 Hamish Kilburn

As consumers become more and more design savvy when checking in to a hotel, marketing expert Chloe Bennet from UK Services Reviews explores ways in which hotels can increase their profits with the perfect narrative… 

Storytelling is an invaluable component of any hotel marketing strategy. Sharing the right narrative is perfect for content marketing as well as creating a bio that allows hotels to connect with their audience. Here are six ways to use storytelling to increase hotel revenue.

People tell stories, and listen to stories, every day without even realising it. “Stories resonate with customers on a deep, human level. In order to succeed in this industry, your marketing efforts must go beyond simply selling hotel rooms at a certain price. You need to connect with your customer base on an emotional level, so that you can make yourself stand out in an overcrowded and competitive market,” suggests Jose Guenther, storyteller at Academized. The digital age has created a ton of opportunities for marketers to use storytelling, which is fortunate because many customers are wary of conventional marketing tactics.

“It’s all about weaving together the different strands to create an interesting and engaging narrative.”

1) Visual storytelling and hotel marketing online

So how do we go about using online storytelling to increase hotel revenue? It’s all about weaving together the different strands to create an interesting and engaging narrative. Guests checking in are a lot less concerned with basic elements such as amenities and information about the room. It’s not that these things aren’t important, it’s just that in the digital age, guests are looking for visuals of what a hotel has to offer. Whenever you can, tell your story through high resolution photographs, combined with riveting narratives. Hotels should focus on interactive storytelling whenever possible, using things like short videos that shows off the hotel’s best features. It’s hard to go wrong with video content, as long as you keep in mind how short attention spans are online.

2) Shaping your digital story

A hotel’s number one job when crafting its story is to create a connection with its audience. Consumers tend to make purchasing decisions based on how they feel, not how they think. If a hotel wants to connect with its audience in this way, it has to get to know its guests first. Target the right segments, learn what they’re looking for, and create content that appeals to them and their needs. Segments and groups will respond differently to different forms of content, so don’t take a shotgun approach that tries to market to everyone at once. A great story told through the wrong kind of content will not be as effective.

3) Make your stories authentic

A hotel’s stories should feel real and have a natural flow to them. If a hotel can include stories from its guests, then that is even better. There’s no reason for a hotel to make stories up, instead hotels should have a wealth of stories and experiences to draw from. Make the story align with the strongest aspects of the hotel, whatever that may be.

4) Storytelling methods

There are a ton of different ways to tell your story, and you’ll probably find there are multiple ones that work for your situation and audience. Will you take advantage of the two-way communication that using social media offers? Maybe you’ll even put the call out to your audience to create some original content. Each hotel’s methods will depend on its audience and its goals. It’s critical that hotels have a goal that can be measured, so they can determine how effective its storytelling is. Data collecting should work to steer the storytelling strategy back on course if it needs correcting or adjustments.

5) Tell better stories by improving your writing skills

To use storytelling to increase your hotel revenue, you’ll need to be writing at a decent level. A lot of people don’t even realise where their writing weaknesses lie. Thanks to the online age, though, there are a number of effective websites out their to help professionals start writing the first chapter:

  • ViaWriting and MyWritingWay – Use these grammar resources to check over your copy for grammatical errors. Don’t risk leaving in mistakes that can discredit you and make you look like an amateur.
  • Big Assignments and Assignment Help – Check out these editing tools, they’ve been reviewed positively by Revieweal and can make your life a lot easier.
  • WritingPopulist and LetsGoandLearn – Read through these writing blogs and improve your knowledge about the writing process. Even if you’re an experienced writer you can find some helpful suggestions and tips here.
  • OXEssays and AustralianReviewer – These online proofreading tools, recommended at BestBritishEssays, are the perfect solution to leaving typos in your copy. Why risk leaving an error in when there are tools that can help?
  • SimpleGrad and State Of Writing – Try out these online writing guides. If you’re struggling with storytelling, there’s a good chance it’s because you’re rushing out drafts without following the proper writing process.

Guests have a myriad of options when it comes to hotels, so it’s crucial to get creative. Good storytelling can differentiate a hotel from the crowd and allow it to form an emotional connection with your audience by sharing its unique personality.

Main image credit: Pexels

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MINIVIEW: Lough Eske Castle Hotel, County Donegal, Ireland

1024 576 Hamish Kilburn

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MINIVIEW: Lough Eske Castle Hotel, County Donegal, Ireland

Guest reviewer Stuart O’Brian checks in to the only five-star hotel in County Donegal…

The first indication of the attention to aesthetic detail that runs through the entire Lough Eske Castle hotel site is the six-foot bronze dragon that greets visitors at the top of its long, winding, forest driveway entrance.

Castle_Deluxe_Room-1170x658

The hotel has experienced a recent change of ownership away from the Solis brand, but thankfully the new owners have seen fit to keep this magnificent beast on its staff roster, along with a dozen or so other animal (and human) sculptures dotted around the grounds.

This corner of Ireland’s North West coast is abundant in natural beauty, something the Lough Eske Castle hotel’s original architects, and its current custodians, kept front of mind when considering exterior and interior décor. On this visit in December 2018, with the mist hanging in the woods around the site and the outdoor winter wonderland Christmas lights outside, the sense of seclusion was palpable.

The ‘castle’ building itself has some history, built as it was by the local O’Donnell family in the 1400s, rebuilt in the 1860s, burned to the ground in the 1930s and then renovated in its current form in the mid-Noughties.

Aesthetically, the exterior has the feeling of two personalities – the restored grandeur of the castle building and the more contemporary dining/function rooms, plus courtyard and garden accommodation that sit somewhere between the two. In fact, if you approach from the ‘alternative’ rear entrance and its views of the new-build accommodation building you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally stumbled into a different hotel.

Internally, the same merging of classic and contemporary styles, plus Gaelic flourishes, is to the fore. The public spaces are a mix of high-ceilinged larger rooms and cosy nooks, while the 98 guestrooms contain bespoke furniture and commissioned artworks, with décor neutral with wood panelling and space (especially in the huge MEPA-appointed bathrooms) in abundance. All rooms have oak furniture and the majority feature dramatic four poster beds.

freestanding bath in the middle of a modern bathroom

Image credit: Lough Eske

There are actually multiple room styles on offer, each sharing the same design cues but managing to feel very distinct – the Castle Suites are all regal flourishes, bare stonework, antiques and lead-lined windows, the Courtyard Rooms are converted stables, while the Garden Suites were built in 2007 during the renovation with a more modern touch.

Spas are a given in the world of five-star and Lough Eske Castle has a well-appointed annex in its gardens dedicated to wellbeing, with a glasshouse waiting/relaxation area, indoor pool with hydrotherapy/sauna facilities and secluded treatment rooms – all flooring here is either sandstone or wood, adding to the sense of class and closeness to the natural world.

And, of course, being in Ireland the hospitality on offer in the contemporary Cedars Restaurant (clean lines, floor to ceiling windows, views of the castle grounds) and Gallery Bar (floor to ceiling drinks cabinet, leather seating, oak tables) is casually exceptional.

Main image credit: Lough Eske

Top stories of the week: design love from Bangkok, hide and seek architecture and a new hotel chapter

800 571 Hamish Kilburn

With architecture and construction firmly in the spotlight, Hotel Designs has witnessed another jam-packed week full of interesting stories that highlights our love in design and architecture. Breaking down these headlines is editor Hamish Kilburn… 

New York, New York! Is there anywhere else on the planet quite like it? In the original metropolis where possibilities soar high above the bustling streets below, the hotel scene is staggering. It’s latest luxury neighbour is situated on 701 Seventh Avenue on the corner of 47th Street, Times Square, and features 452 guestrooms. With four levels of public space, the hotel is, much like the area it surrounds has already done over many decades, evolving with the trends to cater to the modern man and woman.

Changing perceptions has been a theme that has stitched together this week’s headlines – and I have been fortunate enough to be the first to tell many of this week’s main features. From spending quality time in the company of interior designer Celia Chu as she prepares to complete Rosewood Bangkok, to continuing to follow Nicky Dobree on her quest to open her first hotel; it’s been a great week to be part of the industry. To top it off, we are hours away from closing the applications/nominations process for our 30 Under 30 initiative. As a young editor (26 years old), I am personally proud to support this scheme – to support young talent in our industry – with every fibre of my body.

Here are the top stories of the week:

1) EDITION arrives in New York’s Times Square

black armchair infront of black wallcoverings

Image credit: EDITION Hotels

“The Times Square EDITION is an entirely new lens on Times Square. From an aerie above the hubbub below, you can engage, observe or withdraw. The hotel is an oasis of sophistication brought to you through the insight of the incomparable Ian Schrager, my friend and partner. There is simply nothing like it,” said Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott International.

> Click here to read the full story

2) The interior designer behind Rosewood Bangkok

open and airy suite with peculiar angular architecture

Image credit: Rosewood Hotels

As its highly anticipated opening is imminently on the horizon, the Rosewood Bangkok’s interior design story is one yet to be unveiled in detail. We caught up with interior designer Celia Chu to establish the narrative told within the walls of the soon-to-open 159-key luxury hotel.

> Click here to read the feature

3) Six Senses joins IHG

Aerial shot of a Six Senses hotel in the ocean

Image credit: Six Senses

The milestone moment, where IHG aquired Six Senses happened on Wednesday. As part of the IHG family, Six Senses is expected to expand to 60 properties within the next 10 years. This includes incredible new Six Senses hotels and resorts from a restored 14th-century fort in Rajasthan, to villas on a private island in Cambodia, and the brand’s first hotel in North America – a contemporary duo of twisting towers designed by Bjarke Ingles near the High Line in Manhattan’s West Chelsea.

> Click here to read the full story

4) Camouflaged hotel architecture of the 21st century

glass structure in the woods

Image credit: treehotel

As we continue putting architecture and construction in the spotlight, Hotel Designs reveals some of the world’s most spectacular hidden architectural gems.

> Click here to read the full story

5) From Concept to Completion: Restoring a 19th-century house to create Plaza 18 (part two)

Moodboard of ideas

Image credit: Nicky Dobree

In part two of our From Concept to Completion series, where we are closely following the design story of Plaza 18, Dobree’s first hotel project is beginning to take form. The building’s design is approaching the final stages before the grand reveal this Easter. Meanwhile, interior designer Nicky Dobree is able to step away from the project for five minutes – something I believe the designer is not accustomed to – in order to explain more about her relationship with the soon-to-be hotel.

> Click here to read the feature

Main image credit: Rosewood Hotels

 

Top stories of the week: futuristic hotel reviews, amazing architecture and rounding up MAISON&OBJET

1024 576 Hamish Kilburn

In the same week that the Surface Design Show opened in London and Dubai welcomes a new stylish neighbour (W Dubai – The Palm), Hotel Designs asked the former presenter of The Gadget Show, Jason Bradbury, to review a hotel 30 years in the future. Here are the top five stories of the week, as selected by editor Hamish Kilburn… 

This week, we published a story announcing yet another Hotel Designs’ traffic record. With January 2019’s readership peaking at more than 67,000 readers, the website has never been more popular internationally among designers, architects, hoteliers and industry suppliers. For that reason, this week has felt like a mini milestone on the editorial desk. Adding to that warm and fuzzy feeling, is our exclusive hotel review with Jason Bradbury, the former presenter of The Gadget Show. Equipped with a camera and the latest technology products, Bradbury spent the night in Eccleston Square Hotel in London future-gazing, as he reviewed the hotel in a unique format – 30 years in the future. Following on from MAISON&OBJET last month, the Surface Design Show, of which we are a media partner for, opened its doors at the Business Design Centre to a flood of new and exciting surface companies exhibiting its latest products. Ahead of that review going live, here are what I consider to be the top five stories of the week.

1) Jason Bradbury reviews Eccleston Square Hotel, London

Image credit: Eccleston Square Hotel/Twitter: @JasonBradbury

Healing heating, holographic entertainment and a toilet that tells you your food printer what snacks to make, technology expert and futurist Jason Bradbury spent a night future gazing in the technologically enhanced 19th Century luxury of Eccleston Square Hotel, London.

> Click here to read the full review

2) Editor’s round-up of MAISON&OBJET Paris and Deco Off 2019

Exhibition hall

Image credit: MAISON&OBJET

The streets of Paris at any time of the year ooze chic style, sophistication and a certain ‘je-ne sais quoi’. During January, though, it is a bustling haven for designers seeking inspiration on emerging trends, new pieces and exhaustive conversations. Between both Deco Off, which in my eyes is Paris’ answer to Clerkenwell Design Week, and MAISON&OBJET, an ocean of exciting products displayed from a plethora of exhibitors, Paris in January is quite simply unlike anywhere else on the design globe.

> Click here to read the round-up

3) W Hotels arrives on The Palm, Dubai

Image credit: W Hotels Worldwide

“The desert just got hotter,” is how W Hotels Worldwide, part of Marriott International Inc., announced the opening of W Dubai – The Palm, located on the Palm Jumeirah, the largest man-made island in the world and one of Dubai’s most iconic attractions.

> Click here to read the story

4) Deadline for 30 Under 30 applications announced

With less than two weeks before the deadline, time is running out for interior designers, architects and hoteliers to submit their entries for the 30 Under 30 list that will be unveiled at Meet Up London: 30 Under 30.

> Click here to apply/nominate

5) 5 awe-inspiring hotel architecture projects currently on the boards

Birdseye render of the site

Image credit: Foster + Partners

To kickstart our month shining the spotlight on architecture and construction, Hotel Designs highlights five groundbreaking projects that are currently in planning.

> Click here to read the story

Main image credit/caption: Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm

Hotel Designs closes January with online traffic record

600 303 Hamish Kilburn

The leading international hotel design website closes January with a record-breaking 67, 792 readers…. 

By exploring hotel openings and spas as its Spotlight On features during January, Hotel Designs has smashed its online monthly traffic record, which was previously hit in November, by amassing more than 67,000 readers to the website.

Hotel Designs, which last year attracted more than half a million readers, engaged readers with the following most-read stories during January:

Spotlight On: Major hotel openings for Q1 & Q2 2019
Inside the world’s first hotel room that determines room rate based on social media addiction
Nobu Hotels to arrive in Warsaw
In Conversation with Yasmine Mahmoudieh
Hotels at New Heights

“This is a fantastic start to 2019,” said publisher Katy Phillips. “I am absolutely thrilled that, yet again, I am being asked to comment on Hotel Designs smashing another online traffic record. As well as showing that our editorial team have their finger on the pulse when it comes to covering hot topics in our industry, this is a clear indication that this market is engaging positively with the content we publish.

“One area that Hotel Designs has always been strong in is having a face-to-face relationship with our audience. We are therefore looking forward to our next networking evening, Meet Up London: 30 Under 30 on March 28, which are aim will be to bridge the age gap in international hotel design.”

The news comes as the website steers its Spotlight On features to cover Surfaces and Architecture and Construction, two widely debated topics within international hotel design.

Click here to read editor Hamish Kilburn’s ‘Editor Checks In’ where he spends some time reflecting on January as a time when two worlds seamlessly collide.

 

The Henrietta Hotel review, Covent Garden: Ideally located boutique stay with louder than life interiors

1024 525 Adam Bloodworth

Londoners, and visitors to London, will know Henrietta Street, even if they don’t know it by name. The unassuming road is one of four framing Covent Garden Piazza, and has celebrated restaurants Flat Iron, and new opening Frenchie, on it. It also houses the relatively new Henrietta Hotel.

You’d blink and miss it. Behind a stately jet black door, the hotel is purposefully unassuming, to the point that this reviewer walked past it twice, without spotting it on both attempts at entry. Once in the day, and once at night. Thankfully I wasn’t hungry.

At first sight the lobby is equally unassuming, like a private home, only past check in, things quickly get eccentric. In the adjoined bar and restaurant, eponymously titled Henrietta, and upstairs in the rooms, the hotel’s design is loud and proud. In fact it’s why guests visit the Henrietta in the first place.

The intimate bar and lobby area (Picture: Hotel Designs)

The eye-catching design is by Parisian designer Dorothee Meilichzon, whose design firm, Chzon, has been at the receiving end of plenty of awards. Those include Designer Of The Year by Maison & Objet In 2015, and being called one of the best 20 designers in the world by Wallpaper magazine in their W* Power 200.

The main design themes are mismatching textures and patterns, and boldly bright colour schemes which compete for the eye’s attention.

The Henrietta Hotel is a relatively new project from artisanal hospitality group The Experimental Group, behind London bars Joyeux Bordel, Compagnie Des Vins Surnaturels and Experimental Cocktail Club, who also run bars and hotels in Paris, New York and Ibiza.

The 18 rooms are spread thinly across the three floors of this tall, skinny ex-townhouse. Doors have pineapple door knockers and old fashioned (read: proper) manual keys, there’s not a key card in sight.

Chzon have made each room its own individual design statement. Embellishments are everywhere, from the golden skirting boards, to the retro amenities (radios, clocks) to mismatched fabrics.

Statement seating in our room (Picture: Hotel Designs)

The care taken to differentiate not even every room, but every inhabitable space within even the smallest rooms, is impressive. Designers and creatives will poke around for hours, although the sum of the parts taken as a whole can lack cohesion and feel overly busy.

We felt this way particularly about our bed stead, a sort of interpreted Art Deco think piece, it needn’t have been so busy to have been beautiful.

The bedstead was maybe a bit too much (Picture: Hotel Designs)

However, the bathroom – with its gradual lighting enhancements – was a shimmering pale pink room which succeeded in feeling airy, while relaxed and calming.

The bathrooms feature generous natural lighting (Picture: Hotel Designs)

A statement bathtub embellished with marble finishes took up a third of the room, with bespoke toiletries bagged up below branded towels. The room found the perfect harmony.

The gentle colour schemes in the bathroom (Picture: Hotel Designs)

There are four grades of room which range from a comfortable double to a suite, although there isn’t much difference in size or amenities between the rooms. That said, the suite – at around £500 – isn’t outrageously priced considering it comes with its own intimate rooftop terrace.

Staying at the Henrietta is really suited for guests exploring the area, so the hotel’s facilities are minimal. Breakfast, however, is included and can be served in the room and features classics alongside an excellent twist on the classic porridge, with dates.

Of equal prominence to Chzon’s design is the famous British chef Ollie Dabbous, who is in charge of the food in the restaurant. Dabbous’s menu is ingredient-led with a French sensibility (simple, whole cuts of meat, finely served) and the restaurant features the same zany, whimsical interior design by Chzon as the rooms.

Bespoke bathroom toiletries (Picture: Hotel Designs)

The premise of “restaurant and cocktails” is an exciting one, given the hotel’s owners; we trusted our French, gentlemanly barkeep to make us the cocktails that suited our palettes.

The a La Carte has five rotating starters and five mains. A smoked duck, pomegranate and chickpea flatbread was freshly baked and well-balanced, and deep with flavour. A theatrical dish of stracciatella had a flavour that was delicately policed by bold blood orange and pecans.

The a La Carte (Picture: Hotel Designs)

The sirloin arrived as delicately plated as it was to taste, as was a veal tonnato, served classically with a wave of puntarelle for flare.

As delicately plated as it was to taste (Picture: Hotel Designs)

Desserts though, are best. The rhubarb crumble is light! But so ripely full of flavour, and arriving with a fresh glass of rhubarb juice, still feels as hedonistic as the full slab of crumble you’d find homestyle elsewhere.

And warm, fresh madeleines with Chantilly cream could, predictably, be scoffed 12 times over.

‘Normal’ prices are, shall we say, best suited to a celebration, rather than mid-week treat – but go for the Sunday Brunch or the spectacularly well-priced pre theatre dinner for £30 which is unmissable for food of this quality and notoriety (Dabbous has a new restaurant, Hide, which, opening this summer in Piccadilly, is already talk of the town).

The view from the rooftop suite (Picture: Hotel Designs)

The Henrietta will have extroverts squealing with excitement – but it packs a loud and bold punch that is divisive.

hub by Premier Inn - Westminster, St. James' Park

hub by Premier Inn – Westminster

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Right in the very heart of any city – London in particular – is probably not the first place one thinks of when ‘affordable accommodation’ is mentioned. But with the opening of Premier Inn’s new, technology-focussed ‘hub’ hotels in the English and Scottish capitals over the last 12 months, that is now a distinct reality.

Invited to take a look around the Westminster, St. James’ Park property earlier this year, which had opened in the October of 2016, I walk through the rather unassuming entrance and am instantly faced with a very impressive digital display complete with locale information and guest guidelines which makes up part of the check-in process for guests.

And this marks the very heart of this new concept from Premier Inn; tapping into the app-driven travel culture. With an app already downloaded, guests can use it to book a room, to check-in, get recommendations on things to see, do, eat and drink in the surrounding area – and ultimately limiting interaction with staff.

Speaking to Toby Wait of project management company TowerEight during my visit, he tells me how much travelling (for business or pleasure) has changed and continues to change. “The way apps have revolutionised our daily lives, it was only a matter of time before it became the norm in the hospitality world,” he says.

While there is no restaurant as such, the hotel does boast a lounge next to the lobby. This is a great concept – being seen more and more in economy-driven properties – with free coffee, tea and pastries all day and complimentary ‘light bites’ offered after 5pm, as well as other drinks available for purchase; it’s a modern, well-designed and well-appointed place for breakfast or evening networking drinks.

The rooms themselves, which come in ‘Standard’ and ‘Bigger’ sizes are also an excellent example of modernity and inch-perfect use of space. The white and olive-green colour scheme is tasteful and keeps the rooms feeling light and airy. A strategically positioned mirror adds to the illusion of space.

The aforementioned app allows guests to control room temperature, lights, change TV channels and take advantage of an in-room ‘augmented reality experience’ – all very clever, but for the less technically adept, there is also a perfectly functional touch screen to perform those tasks by the bed. Providing both UK and European power sockets is another thoughtful extra – meaning that guests are covered should they forget their adaptors.

hub by Premier Inn  - Westminster, St. James' Park

Due to the size of rooms, it is to be expected that storage space is at a premium, which for couples using a ‘Standard’ room might be a bit of an issue. But for solo travellers or those who pack light, the architects have made use of some clever solutions to optimise space. Plus, this is central London after all. Bathrooms are, again, ‘cosy’ but have everything a guest will need for a short stay.

A recent Telegraph Travel survey found that technology-focused hotels are becoming increasingly common and popular with travellers; with the findings showing that 42 percent of UK guests preferring to operate a room’s lighting, air conditioning and television via a display instead of using a separate remote control or switch.

With that in mind, Whitbread and TowerEight have tapped perfectly into this sector in the market with the ‘Hub’ concept. With seven London properties (including the Westminster, St. James’ hotel) and two in Edinburgh, the concept lives up to its promise and delivers both superb locations and a staggeringly competitive room-rate. In London, especially, that is a rare combination and one that I expect will only become more and more popular…

Based on a visit in January 2017
Photos: Whitbread PLC // Daniel Fountain

www.hubhotels.co.uk

Mansion House across lilypad covered canal - The Grove

The Grove, Hertfordshire

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

‘20 miles from central London…’.

Think of that radius and you likely imagine yourself still amongst the concrete jungle of Greater London. But with The Grove in mind, it’s time for a re-think. This 18th century country estate replete with championship golf course and world-class spa is as far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital as is possible to imagine.

The historic mansion, formerly the family seat of the Clarendon earldom and which forms only part of The Grove’s offering, has a storied past – having at various points in time been a girls’ boarding school, a health centre and a riding school. These days, it’s better-known as a haunt for the famously wealthy and wealthily famous. But all of that’s to ignore its sublime mix of the traditional and contemporary – or as interior design director Martin Hulbert calls it; ‘grand and groovy’. For the most part, he’s done a good job of capturing both.

The luxury hotel is split into two very distinct (perhaps too distinct) parts – the original mansion and the new wing – and Hulbert’s latest work at The Grove has been concentrated on revisiting the event spaces, which within the modern West Wing definitely lean towards his ‘contemporary and groovy’ ethos. More than a decade on from his original vision for the 5-star luxury resort, Hulbert’s design group Martin Hulbert Design (MHD) has incorporated a two-fold brief of revamping and reinvigorating existing spaces with reconfiguring and reimagining to give each a unique identity.

Cedar Suite - The Grove

Of the venue, Hulbert himself says: “The Grove is an incredibly inspiring place for special events, full of wit and flair, wonderfully unexpected and naturally inspired – the original interiors had lasted really well, they just needed a shot in the arm, something to push them forward into the future.

“Coming back to The Grove, we knew that it still had to be quirky and interactive, but things have changed in the last 15 years, people now want a beautiful space to work with,” he adds.

The Grove

With the new suites – Cedar, Amber and Ivory – he has given the people exactly what they want. The two separate units of Amber and Ivory both now have a dedicated entrance with their own reception desks. Artwork plays an extensive role in the décor of the newly imagined suites; with much of it commissioned especially. What impresses me most is the way the feel of the spaces is maintained however they are used, with the flexibility of the spaces based on guests’ requests having also been well thought through in the design process.

The jewel in the crown of The Grove’s spaces, however, is the oval-shaped pavilion that houses the Cedar Suite – the first time MHD has led the architectural process. With the structure jutting out into the hotel’s gardens, Hulbert has incorporated the natural light from them perfectly with the walls of the pavilion being formed of floor-to-ceiling glass and its eco-green-roof. Inside, the wooden floor is outshone by a ceiling of what I’m told are ‘acoustic leaves’ – inspired by those in the Royal Albert Hall. For an event space, it makes for a refreshingly welcome visual treat.

The Cedar Suite - The Grove

From the pavilion, the Cedar Suite extends into the main building – with a new private entrance. The entrance canopy has also been specially designed, using Verdigris copper, uniting the spaces. And every element is bespoke, either commissioned by, or designed by, MHD. In the centre of the entrance room is a working sculpture – creating a focal point – namely a vast steel table, suspended between two steel columns, which moves up and down using a series of weights and pulleys. The result is a multitude of options: a table for dinner, a cocktail bar, a centrepiece to cover in flowers or a canopy to dance underneath, setting the elegant yet industrial feel that is evident throughout. And this is what Hulbert has done well with these spaces; there is a definite minimalist blend between industrial chic and natural inspiration, which gives The Grove a uniqueness in selling the spaces over other venues.

The Cedar Suite - The Grove

After my tour, I get a chance to check out the hotel’s renowned Sequoia spa, which itself has also recently been renovated. It is a spectacular example of a hotel wellbeing complex; being both state-of-the-art and thoroughly well-designed. During a short show-round, I’m told it has recently been recognised by the Good Spa Awards and it’s easy to see why.

Swimming Pool

I check into my Deluxe room in the more modern west wing – housing 191 of the hotel’s rooms – and am struck immediately by the excellent size of the room, which means having everything required of a room without it feeling cluttered; followed closely by the stunning views over the grounds from my balcony window. The nature-inspired design seen throughout the public spaces downstairs is prevalent in the rooms, with autumnal browns, golds and yellows strongly featured throughout.

The choice of furniture and textural finishes to the room are of an extremely high quality. The bathroom is just as luxurious, with a free-standing roll-top bathtub and a separate shower unit; the artwork and colour scheme continuing the theme from the living area. The workspace is suitably supplied with power sockets; the 50-inch smart, plasma TV is well placed; and if there was one negative to mark it was the modest wardrobe space – only an issue if more than one person was staying in the room.

Deluxe Room - The Grove

Deluxe Room - The Grove

Editor’s note: The aesthetics of these rooms – while clean, modern, defined and unfussy – might not be to everyone’s taste for a ‘country retreat’. For a more period, rustic and ornate feel, one of the 26 rooms in the original mansion might better suit this remit. The overtly contemporary elements of the west wing aren’t dominant here, instead rooms retain a traditional finish with antiques, deeper hues and opulent fabrics.

The Grove - artwork

On my way down to dinner, I notice how much artwork plays a role in giving The Grove an edge. Even dotted around amongst the corridors, stairways and outdoor grounds are eccentric, conversation-starting fixtures and pieces – from modern representations of Margaret Thatcher to ornate chandeliers to black-and-white photography of giraffes – which gives off just the right amount of edginess. Indeed, in a nod to Hulbert’s philosophy of blending contemporary with traditional, the lounges and the fine-dining offering Colette’s – the ‘heart’ of the Mansion – retain the character and tradition with a period-style feel, grand ceilings and elegant furniture, while The Glasshouse and its connecting bar definitely represent the sleek modernity, with up-to-the-minute décor of blacks, reds and whites; while the gastro-pub-style Stables sits somewhere comfortably between the two.

The Grove - the lounges

View through the Lounges

Colette's - The Grove

I had heard of The Grove before my stay. Afterwards, I can now express first-hand why this is a unique venue. The levels of service are as expected from a 5-star hotel. The standard of the interiors, the amenities and produce cannot be faulted. But the dichotomous design approach in respecting the old and embracing the new makes this a ‘country estate’ with a difference, and a very good one at that.

Perhaps these dual personalities – you could stay in either section and rarely interact with the other – could bleed into each other slightly more without such stark division to truly show off the ‘grand and groovy’ ethos more seamlessly. Or perhaps that’s just me being too pedantic. In any case, kudos Mr. Hulbert, this is fine work…

Based on a stay in December 2016
Photos: Daniel Fountain // The Grove
www.thegrove.co.uk

CitizenM Tower of London

citizenM Tower of London

1024 683 Daniel Fountain

For nearly a decade now, citizenM has been altering perceptions of what a hotel can and should be – with its ‘Living Room’ concept and modern take on what travellers need from a hotel. The Dutch chain has been blazing a trail in its native Netherlands and across Europe since 2008; blending ‘instantly-iconic’ interiors and furnishings with technology to create a unique guest experience for the ‘city-break, millennial’ types.

I had the pleasure of sampling this quirky approach during a recent stay at one of the latest additions to its UK offering at the Tower of London property. While the hotel’s entrance is inconspicuous in comparison to some of its more illustrious neighbours, the building’s exterior and interiors are anything but.

citizenM Tower of London

The rectangular-clad façade is a stark juxtaposition of modernity against the overtly historic Tower of London just a stone’s throw away. And as soon as I enter the reception-cum-lounge-cum-dining area, I’m met with a brilliant visual treat for the senses. It might sound like an odd mix to combine all three with no regard for distinct separation, but the free-flowing design of the spaces has been treated with the utmost respect; utilising clever chainmail curtains and highly effective wayfinding to create the impression of three distinct entities.

CitizenM Tower of London

I’m a huge fan of the contemporaneous and wonderfully ‘kitsch Britannia’ feel of the space, and judging by the buzz of people using the space to work, network and relax, I’m not the only one. The walls lined with striking and lively photography and art, floor-to-ceiling shelves filled to the brim with more literature than a hipster could shake a stick at plus a mixture of delightful vintage pieces and Vitra furniture all go to create a fantastic space that demonstrates the citizenM brand ethos perfectly – and with a touch of style too. For those new to the concept, this communal area makes for a great first impression.

Citizen M Tower of London

*As if to emphasise the brand concept, doing away with a traditional reception desk has allowed for the placement of self-service check-in pods. I always love to see technological innovation in hotels, especially when it actually enhances the guest experience; this does – an easy-to-use system and not technology for technology’s sake.*

The quirky and leftfield décor continues even in the lifts and corridors on the way up to the room. Each lift cubicle is fitted out in a different style and inspirational photography and quotes line the walls. And then there’s the rooms themselves…

I was offered an external-view room which, with views directly onto the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and the London cityscape beyond, I definitely recommend; watching the sunrise over the Thames makes for a dramatic start to any day.

citizenM Tower of London

While small, the 370 rooms are fantastically formed and include everything a guest would need. The space has been utilised to perfection. The wall-to-wall Sealy bed against the window makes for a unique layout, but doesn’t feel cramped especially as it includes space-saving luggage stores stowed underneath, which more than makes up for the shortage of hanging space. The self-contained bathroom and rain-shower unit is a wonderful example of economic design, with privacy being maintained with curved, frosted glass. Having seen images of the rooms beforehand, I feared this might be a little too ‘university dormitory-esque’ and with space at a premium I worried about noise pollution from adjacent rooms and the corridor, but my fears on both counts are allayed immediately on entering.

citizenM Tower of London

citizenM Tower of London

The biggest selling point for me has to be the iPad, from which central and mood lighting, the television, music and curtains can be controlled. An ingenious touch, and something that stands out long after checking-out. Another design choice I found myself giving a thumbs up for is the universal power sockets, as someone who often forgets adapters when travelling, this consideration from the designers is indicative of the ‘everything you need, nothing you don’t’ concept of citizenM. Make no mistake, this space isn’t designed for spending hours at a time in. This is a practical-but-fun base for exploring the city. And it fits the bill perfectly.

citizenM Tower of London

 

Once checked-in, I have time to take in a drink at the Cloud M cocktail bar, located on the top floor. The interior theme running throughout makes its way up here too, with Queen Elizabeth print wallcoverings, stunning bespoke brass light fittings and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves bringing a frisson of frivolity to the space. The attention to detail in the design here completes a top-to-bottom clean sweep for the hotel in terms of creating interesting, unique and stimulating interiors. The 180-degree panoramic views over London are definitely a bonus, too.

This was my first experience of a citizenM property close-up. I was intrigued by the concept and I wasn’t disappointed – it has been carried out exceptionally. The designers have carefully thought out the process of designing a hotel that caters to guests’ needs with utmost efficiency without bombarding them with frilly extras, whilst at the same time creating interiors of a quirky quality rarely seen this close to central London and at these prices. A near-perfect balance of practicality and aesthetics.

With more properties on the horizon, I can safely say this won’t be my last experience of a citizen property…

citizenM Tower of London

Based on a visit in November 2016
Photos: Daniel Fountain / citizenM

citizenm.com

Atlantic Hotel, Jersey

Atlantic Hotel, Jersey

1024 499 Daniel Fountain

“You’ll love it,” I was told by friends when I mentioned I was heading to Jersey for the first time.

It’s true, I knew little about this Crown Dependency nestled in the Bay of Mont St. Michel before I flew over (at the second attempt) from the mainland; this British-but-slightly-so-Gallic island had never been on my radar of must-visit destinations. After spending two days discovering this delightfully quaint bailiwick, that has most definitely changed.

Atlantic Hotel, St Brelade

The view over St. Ouen’s Bay from the hotel’s headlands

I was visiting to spend an evening at the Atlantic Hotel in St. Brelade, a family-owned hotel under the stewardship of Patrick Burke and his wife Treena, and to review the two restaurants attached to the property. Prior research showed me that the hotel has built up a reputation for being one of the best hotels on Jersey. Indeed, when I announce my destination to my taxi driver, he nods his approval and commends my choice. With its effortless luxury and excellent service, it’s easy to see why.

As we wind up the entrance road, I’m struck by the markedly 1930s-style exterior of the building, which is surprising considering the hotel was purpose-built and opened in 1970 by Patrick’s father Henry – but it makes for a refreshing change to the over-modernisation often encountered at projects back in London. Yet, given the retro vibe of Jersey it’s certainly not out of place and its ocean liner-esque appearance is befitting of Jersey’s obvious oceanic feel. And as soon as I enter the hotel, I note the understated elegance of the public areas.

The reception-cum-lounge area is light, airy and the wooden floors and occasional exposed brickwork all reflect the property’s coastal locale. It’s an excellent blend of modern and classic. A range of sand-and-sea motif pieces from local artists line the walls – alongside beautifully appointed, unique furnishings – and the ‘Atlantic Dunes’ by Nicholas Romeril takes my breath away as Patrick explains the story of how it came to be in the possession of the hotel whilst Naomi Renouf’s ‘Crossing the Sands’ is an eye-catching centrepiece. The source of the constant sound of rushing water is a fountain set in a water feature traversing the indoor-outdoor divide complete with a carp fishpond. This space is built for a life less rushed.

A baby grand piano sitting at the entrance to the hotel’s stunning Ocean restaurant adds a touch of glamour. Indeed, glamour is what the Michelin-starred Ocean is all about and the interiors are exquisite. It’s by far and away my favourite space in the whole hotel; the elegant pillars, French shuttered windows and blend of white, cream and beige with dashes of deep blues and reds conjure up a feeling of an Edwardian dining room – it’s a truly beautiful setting for a meal. It overlooks a delightful garden terrace and generous outdoor swimming pool, which was the next stop on my tour with Patrick.

The pool area is reminiscent of a southern Mediterranean setting, not one just 50 minutes from London. Palm trees blend in with the stunning views over St Ouen’s Bay and the vast Atlantic expanse beyond – an enthralling sight so close to home. Our walk over the hotel’s 6 acres of grounds and headlands allows a glimpse of the tennis court as well as the Garden Suites – the deluxe offering at the Atlantic – which were fully occupied during my stay, but ‘extremely popular with families’ I’m told by Patrick, made up of ground floor rooms with large en-suite bathrooms and a private terrace with direct access to the gardens and swimming pool.

It’s at this point I discover a bit more about the journey Patrick has been on with the Atlantic. Having taken over as managing director in 1987, Patrick went about transforming the property into what it is today and in the process – through various strategy groups – the hospitality scene on Jersey as a whole. Indeed, this is clearly a labour of love for Patrick; under his stewardship the hotel has enjoyed numerous accolades such as membership of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group (of which, Patrick himself is a director), AA rosettes and the prestigious ‘Independent Hotel of the Year’ at The 2014 Cateys – an award, I can see, that evokes a great sense of pride. Rightly so.

20160727_120537

Jersey as a destination is in Patrick’s blood. He tells me of his work with the Luxury Jersey Hotels (LJH) consortium, a collection of Jersey hoteliers working together to bolster the reputation of the island as an internationally recognised hotspot for gastronomy and luxury. His obvious success led him to inaugurate the Eat Jersey Food Festival last year, which brings acclaimed chefs to the island from the UK, France and Jersey itself in a celebration of local produce. This is a way of life for Patrick, not just a job.

He tells me, when I ask about possible expansion plans, that maintaining the look and feel of the hotel as well as the aesthetics of the site are extremely important; so building upwards is out of the question. Consolidating what is already a fantastic property is the name of the game. The tour comes to an end, which allows me some time to sample the modest but perfectly adequate Palm Club health facilities comprising an indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, a mini gymnasium and saunas and a welcome option considering the less-than-summery conditions outside.

atlantic3

I retire to my ‘Ocean View’ room, featuring a king size bed with a simple, contemporary oak headboard, and comfortably elegant furnishings; the Art Deco-meets-maritime theme of the hotel is strong in the room décor. My room is well equipped with a marble bathroom, complete with high-quality, ever-functional Hotel Designs clients Hansgrohe fittings and luxury toiletries by Molton Brown.

My balcony windows do indeed offer views over the swimming pool area and the ocean – it’s just a shame about the uncharacteristically cloudy July day. Considerable refurbishment work has been carried out over the years since the turn of the century as part of Patrick’s commitment to constant improvement and maintaining a high standard throughout. The hotel offers a range of rooms – including ‘Executive’ and ‘Atlantic’ suites – all finished to the same levels of unfussy elegance and practicality.

I spend an evening with Patrick and Treena over dinner in the hotel’s superb Ocean restaurant – fronted by the charming Martinho de Sousa and showcasing the supreme talent of chef Mark Jordan – which, having held its Michelin star since 2007, is a destination in itself. Combine the two, and staying at the Atlantic is most definitely an experience to savour. After lunch the next day in the hotel’s sister restaurant in nearby St Peter and a short time looking around southern Jersey, I take the short hop back to the mainland. I then proceed to spend the next few weeks telling anyone who’ll listen that they must find the time to visit this wonderfully idiosyncratic island and ensure that they stay at this gem of a hotel.

Atlantic Hotel

2020 will mark 50 years of the Atlantic. In his time at the helm, it’s clear to see that Patrick has firmly established the hotel as one of the best on Jersey. Having seen it first hand, I have no doubts that his passion for the industry and the locale as well as his dedication to quality and service that the property will continue to remain so in the years ahead. Trust me, one would be hard-pushed to find a more faultless example of what a small, luxury hotel should be…

Based on a stay in July 2016
Photos: Daniel Fountain // Atlantic Hotel
theatlantichotel.com

Chilston Park

Chilston Park, Kent

1000 625 Daniel Fountain

Tucked away in 22 acres of Kent countryside is the beautiful Chilston Park – a Grade I-listed manor house from the 15th century – home to a 53-room hotel offering in the Hand Picked Hotels Collection.

But its idyllic location belies a fantastic location, close to the M20 and Channel Tunnel, and ease of access to London and the Eurotunnel. Not that you would know when walking around the extensive grounds or spending time in its rooms.

Chilston Park

The building’s rich history over the centuries has seen architectural additions and furnished enrich this stunning property – 16th century wooden, carved panels above the main fireplace, twelve-paned sash windows and a smattering of priceless antiques left by the various families who have owned the property over the last five centuries.

On our visit, we were given a feature room and a suite to sample – Treen and Tudor respectively – and the design and furnishings in both continue the celebration of classic antiquity seen throughout the rest of the hotel. The Tudor suite in particular was a joy to behold, with stunning original beams throughout, spacious living spaces and a sumptuous standalone bath being the highlights – a perfect example of country house splendour.

Of Chilston’s 53 individually-named rooms, there are 15 in the main house, with the remainder located in the stone stables, coachman’s cottages and new extension outside. Mews rooms in the Stables and Coachman’s Cottages feature a more homely feel and courtyard views. All rooms are luxuriously appointed with Hotel Designs partners Hypnos beds, plush bed linens and toiletries.

The main dining option of Chilston Park is the Wedgwood blue-themed, classically decorated Culpepper’s Restaurant where the majority of guests will dine. But all the public spaces carry the same charm, with the centrepiece being the main staircase (above, left); a fantastically grand space and a perfect spot for drinks. Chilston Park also caters for business guests, with 10 meeting spaces and the ability to cater for up to 150 delegates.

With a blend of beautiful interiors, classic luxury and superb location – Chilston Park is a gem, and well worth a visit if one is in the area.

handpickedhotels.co.uk/chilstonpark

L'Amandier

L’Amandier, Marrakech

1000 635 Amelia Walker

Marrakech is abuzz. Not just because of it currently being peak summer, nor because, earlier this year, when Tripadvisor announced the winners of its 2015 travelers’ choice awards for destinations travellers ranked the city as the top travel destination in the world (last year, it ranked at no. 6).

But, because the long-awaited launch of the five-star L’Amandier hotel has finally been unveiled. It is nestled in the Ouirgane Valley and only an hour from the city.

L'Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

L’Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

“My brother and I discovered this place some years ago when it was a scrub of land, with a few dying almond trees and nothing else. This was the start of a colourful journey of new friendships, discovering water, running water, sowing seeds, laying brick on top of brick, bring in power…and now we are here,” says Founder, Anwar Harland-Khan.

Well, for those of you in need of inspiration for an international destination, be it for incentive travel, a private party, a conference, a holiday, team builder or celebratory venue, this gem-like haven is a beguiling place.

L'Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

L’Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

“L’Amandier has been quite a journey,” says Anwar. We are sitting on one of the villa’s expansive sun-warmed terraces, within 12 acres of citrus groves and almond trees, surrounded by a patchwork of valleys and mountain peaks. The panoramic views over the surrounding Toubkal National Park that we’re looking out on are spectacular. Aside from the gentle hum of the call to prayer that I can hear in the distance, it is peaceful, quiet and wonderfully still. I can’t remember the last time that I’ve felt this relaxed. ‘Landscape therapy’ here is instant and you immediately give in to the pace of life. Calm trickles down from the top after all – and Anwar is warmth and charm itself.

I am one of the lucky media guests invited to the hotel’s soft launch (before it officially opens its doors in Autumn 2016), to join his friends and family to celebrate this 12-year project coming full circle.

L'Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

L’Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

L’Amandier is an environmentally sensitive venture that has remained sympathetic to its surrounding environs. The property has been designed by London-based architect, Nick Gowing, who has juxtaposed the contours of the surrounding landscape with the buildings geometric lines. His aim? To ensure that the beauty of the vista was incorporated into the living and communal areas where possible, through floor-to-ceiling windows (light and space are recurrent motifs throughout), and buildings rendered in the same colour as the rich, red earth of the L’Amandier Plateau, merging it as part of the landscape, in form and function.

L'Amandier (Tara Panchaud)

L’Amandier (Tara Panchaud)

The premises accommodates up to 46 guests in the six suite boutique hotel and the 13 estate villas. All villas have been sold to private investors but are available to rent (each owner has full use of the hotel’s facilities and access to In-house Catering with Private Chef). Each boasts a vast roof terrace with frame pergola style seating area, swapped with deep cushions and white cotton drapes, and showstopping vistas – the perfect backdrop for sundowners.

The architecture is cubist in form yet embraces the characteristics of a Moroccan riad – whereby the rooms are built around a central courtyard. Each villa accentuates L’Amandier’s philosophy of uniting a contemporary European design aesthetic with traditional Moroccan artistry and sustainable materials, think tadelakt walls, bejmat tiles and local walnut wood for the furniture.

L'Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

L’Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

Elsewhere there’s a 50-cover restaurant, a blinding 25m-infinity pool, tennis court and a vast 40m2 terrace perfect for alfresco soirées.

Elegant interiors represent a timeless grace and come courtesy of Michael Kopinski. His descriptions of “Zen-like” and “raw” are spot-on, nodding to the country’s past and championing the skill of the Moroccan people, through ethically sourced local products. It’s all in the detail right? Well the subtle intricacies do not go unnoticed. I’m referring to the change of light throughout the day, and how the colours of the bespoke handpicked tiles dotted around the resort flicker between cobalt aqua and silver depending on the positioning of the sun. “The feeling inside the hotel is of shimmering water,” explains Michael. “The colour palette reflects the beautiful rich greens of the surrounding lush valleys and the baked clay colour of the sunsets… but toned down, subdued, an echo.”

L'Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

L’Amandier (Anthony Craddock)

I felt a shift at L’Amandier. At one point I did nothing but stare at the view for 40 minutes – no need for emails, or phone. It is a heady mix, this seamless blend of indoor-outdoor living and the combination of culture, creativity, spirit and vision.

lamandierhotel.com

Clevedon Hall, Somerset

Clevedon Hall, Somerset

1000 562 Daniel Fountain

On a recent editorial jaunt for Hotel Design’s sister publication (PA Life) I was invited to spend an evening at Clevedon Hall, a Victorian mansion conversion overlooking the Bristol Channel. My invitation was to experience their new corporate hosting (FULL REVIEW HERE), but the overnight stay allowed me to assess the considerable work that has been carried out on the property’s upper levels in recent years.

Originally used as office space for the venue’s long-thriving wedding hosting service, Jane Clayton & Company were tasked with restoring these upper floors to create 25 individually appointed bedrooms from the available space. It means that the interiors for each room have been uniquely designed and considered, taking into account size, aspect and architecture.

Clevedon Hall, Somerset

Speaking to Lawrence Dauncey, Clevedon Hall’s Corporate Concierge, he tells me that the firm have been careful to avoid a generic theme. Instead, and rather cleverly, Clayton and her team have kept a continuous theme running throughout the rooms through selection of furniture and furnishings and a subtle, nature-inspired colour palette.

Speaking of nature, my wonderfully-named ‘Peregrine’ suite is a gorgeous blend of greys, browns and cream and the attention to detail in the upholstery and accessories adds a luxuriously traditional feel – but having recently been completed, the room still retains a ‘freshly painted’ look. Both the bedroom and bathroom are spacious and a well-lit entrance hallway splits the two, a touch I particularly like as it keeps a degree of separation between the living and washroom areas.

Clevedon Hall, Somerset

The touches of luxury continue in the bathroom: an extremely hi-tech toilet in the Japanese style (which I’m reliably informed costs upwards of £6,000), a striking standalone sink unit, walk-in shower and generously-sized bathtub – it’s a shame I’m only staying for one evening. The colour scheme from the living quarters continue with light mink tiling and panels, with marble and mahogany adding touches of luxury.

Clevedon Hall, Somerset

The public spaces of the hotel where events are hosted – such as the Grand Library, Orangery, and Conrad Finzel and Dame Rosa Burden suites – are beautiful in the grand, traditional sense and (as I wrote elsewhere) ooze character and style. They boast stunning architectural features, including an old wood panelled library and many original features.

Clevedon Hall, Somerset

Plans have been approved and action is already under way to carry out a renovation of the ground-floor levels in a similar style to the guestrooms, bringing a contemporary feel to the Great Hall entrance area, which will bring the standard of this building inside and out to a very high level.

As I write, the hotel remains open to event or corporate guests only, and Lawrence tells me the owners plan to keep it that way. But the work already completed on the property, and considerable refurbishment to come on the ground floors (which I cannot wait to see for myself later in the year), make this an exemplary case study of interior design and using existing spaces well; so much so you might want to book an event just to try it for yourself…

Based on a stay in May 2016
Photos: Daniel Fountain
clevedonhall.co.uk

11 Cadogan Gardens

11 Cadogan Gardens, London

1000 552 Molly Dyson

Guest reviewer Molly Dyson shares her experience of the newly refurbished 11 Cadogan Gardens in the heart of London. . .

I arrive at 11 Cadogan Gardens just after 3pm on a Friday and the buzz going on around the property is refreshing. It’s a bank holiday weekend, so there are a few families milling about and the attentive staff are on hand to open doors and check in new guests.

Daniela at reception happily tells me I’ve been upgraded to a signature suite on the third floor and assures me I’m going to have a wonderful stay. As soon as I turn around, Concierge Emelson is waiting to take my bag and show me the way to my room, which includes a ride up in the vintage lift. Emelson tells me he’s been working at the hotel for a while and suggests a few things to see in the area. He’s especially proud of the recent refurbishment to the property – my room was only finished two weeks ago.

Signature Suite - 11 Cadogan Gardens

My suite is light and airy, which is somewhat unexpected in an old building such as this. The room is nicely laid out, with a couch and television at one end, a desk with foldout dressing table in the middle and a massive king-size bed at the other end.

The bathroom is a wonder on its own; a separate waterfall shower and toilet cubicle break up the space. I’m pleased to see the bathtub is the perfect size for a Friday night soak and fluffy white robes have been provided for added comfort.

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RELATED: 11 Cadogan Gardens unveils new interior by JSJ Design
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I head back down to the lobby for a tour with Petra, who tells me the refurb is quite extensive and took around a year to complete, with every care taken to preserve some of the hotel’s original features. Along the way we visit some of the property’s other signature suites, two of which feature their own private entrance – perfect for shopping trips.

11 Cadogan Gardens

We finish our tour in the drawing room for a cup of coffee while I look over the afternoon tea selection, which is themed around the Chelsea Flower Show. Downstairs is the restaurant Tartufo, where guests can dine on a sumptuous truffle-based tasting menu.

In the evening, my plus one and I find a quiet corner in the richly decorated bar to nurse cocktails and Prosecco after dinner before retiring to our suite to veg out in front of the television. The super-soft bed with its fluffy duvet calls my name before too long and I get one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.

If you’re looking for a place that’s a bit quirky and stylish for any reason, I highly recommend 11 Cadogan Gardens…

Based on a stay in April 2016. Photos: 11cadogangardens.com

Forest Side Hotel review

Forest Side Hotel, Cumbria

955 674 Daniel Fountain

For those of us in the know, the Lake District needs little introduction. Indeed, sometimes, there are no words to capture its outstanding beauty.

For the rest, yet to discover its delights first-hand, I can only urge a visit to find out why this is the case – its stunning landscape, quaint villages and air of tranquil solitariness have been captured perfectly by the immortal words of Wordsworth, Landon and Procter far better than I could ever hope to attempt here.

Forest Side Hotel - views from Master Room
So, it was with great pleasure I was invited to dine and stay at the newly-refurbished Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere – the third property in the portfolio of affable and mild-mannered hotelier Andrew Wildsmith. Forest Side, which has joined Hipping Hall in Kirkby Lonsdale and The Ryebeck in Bowness in his eponymous collection, is a fantastic base for discovering just how accurate Lakes-native William Wordsworth’s love-letters to the district still are.

Set amongst craggy mountains and serene lakeside grounds this former Victorian manor home – tucked away from the main road, which had just reopened during my visit after the damaging floods earlier in the year – oozes presence on arrival. I’m welcomed at a simple reception desk and then get a chance to spot the impressive main staircase and the various rooms that break off the main atrium – namely the bar, lounge and the hotel’s fantastic restaurant. (FULL REVIEW HERE)

Forest Side Hotel - lounge area
Andrew later tells me that the building was first surveyed in the autumn of 2013 after an online search and purchased in the summer of 2014 – with the kitchen requiring a complete re-equipment and refit and the small bedrooms needing to be repurposed to restore them to their original size. The latter has been done with great aplomb. My ‘Master’ room is incredibly spacious, luxuriously and tastefully furnished with predominantly light hues by HD Directory members Zoffany; and drenched in natural light thanks to the elegantly-dressed, period-style windows (all 80 of which in the property, I later read, were painstakingly installed). My only gripe would be with the placement of the television in relation to the location of sofas and chairs, it has been rather awkwardly placed in a corner and comes across as an afterthought.

Forest Side Hotel - guestrooms

But the attention to detail throughout, from the furniture choices (think custom-made Harrison Spinks beds), heritage-inspired upholstery and fabrics to the wonderfully simple but elegantly functional finish in the bathroom – the push-button thermostatic mixer for concealed outlets on the bath and shower by HD partner Hansgrohe a definite stand-out – all endorse the skills of an interior designer with an eye for modern luxury as well as the hotel’s bucolic surroundings.

Forest Side Hotel - guestroom

Forest Side Hotel - bathroom

Indeed, James Mackie’s locally-inspired touch is to be found throughout all the Forest Side’s rooms. A perfect example of this? I read all the carpets are sourced from the local Herdwick breed of sheep and the entire hotel’s order totalled 2,000 fleeces from Wools of Cumbria.

Forest Side Hotel - guestroom

Forest Side Hotel - guestroom
Moving downstairs, I get to sneak a peek at the open-view and modern kitchen, head chef Kevin Tickle’s team already busy at work preparing for the evening service ahead, as well as the spectacular wine cellar – it disappears into a cavernous opening below me as I try to get a glimpse at its treasures through a glass panel beneath my feet. An example of the blend of state-of-the-art and carefully restored historicity that makes this hotel so appealing.

Forest Side Hotel - lounge areaForest Side Hotel - lounge area
The look and feel of the lounge areas exacerbate the rich, textured feel of the rooms upstairs with varied wallcovering choices – the zany ornithological theme of the smaller lounge area balanced out by beautiful, shimmering metallic Lustre Quartz in the larger room – elaborate mirrors, original fireplaces and decadent sofas. These all offer more of an assault on the visual sense than in the guestrooms. But an earthier, rustic look is achieved in the dining room, complete with glorious views of the grounds and beyond. I adore this space and it’s my favourite in the whole hotel – I love the fact the dining tables are made from reclaimed wood from the original floorboards by a local carpenter. A superb touch.

Forest Side Hotel - Restaurant

The brilliant dining tables made using the old wooden floorboards of the original floor

The next morning, after a hearty Cumbrian breakfast (what else…?), I’m shown around the hotel’s marvellous, manicured foraging / kitchen gardens built a short walk from the hotel itself on top of land originally left to overgrow; it’s now home to a host of vegetables, herbs and deliciously edible things I never realised were edible. “Not many gardens with such a view,” Andrew remarks as we gaze out on the dramatic Lakes landscape and local landmark ‘Lion and the Lamb’ rock formation. I can only agree.

Forest Side Hotel - lounge area
Forest Side Hotel - lounge area
It’s with a heavy heart I have to pack up and leave on the long drive back south; I could have spent a week enjoying this gem of a hotel and exploring its locality. A no-expense-spared approach to the refurbishment and interior design is matched by the entire Forest Side team, whose accomplished, professional but personable approach to their work only adds to the experience of what is an outstanding property.

Chatting briefly to Andrew before I leave, I discover he started his hotelier career having previously read chemistry at Cambridge. If his two other properties are half as good as the Forest Side, it appears he really does possess a Midas touch – especially when it comes to boutique hospitality…

Based on a stay in May 2016
Photos: Daniel Fountain // Forest Side Facebook
www.theforestside.com

Radisson Blu, Edinburgh

Radisson Blu, Edinburgh

772 500 Daniel Fountain

With all due respect to any of our readers who hail from the cities of Bath and Durham, I will tell anyone who will listen that I believe Edinburgh is the UK’s prettiest city. The breathtaking countryside to its south, its cobbled roads, its wonderfully archaic side-streets and UNESCO World Heritage-protected buildings – the Scottish capital is one of our country’s gems; always worth a visit and definitely worth celebrating.

As someone who takes notice of such things for a living, design and architecture play a big part in the city’s allure. From Holyrood Palace to the famous castle and back up again around the Royal Mile, there are so many fantastic examples of both. With such striking and beautiful architecture at every turn, it figures that more modern projects – namely a Radisson Blu hotel – have to incorporate these stunning surroundings into their external appearance.

This branch of the slick, business-minded brand ticks that box perfectly. Its neo-gothic, castle-esque exterior blends in with uniform ease to the rest of the street’s aesthetic. However, having paid homage to the city’s history on the outside, a reflection of a much more modern, corporate Edinburgh is revealed once inside. After a series of touch-ups and refurbishments since the turn of the century, the hotel’s interior looks very much ahead rather than to the past.

When I arrive after a picturesque, but very long drive, I do have to manoeuvre my way around a rather complex route from carpark to lobby via a service lift. It’s here I am reminded how important – but sometimes overlooked – well-appointed signage is for guests. It’s not an ideal first impression to begin with, but I needn’t have worried as the rest of the hotel more than made up for it.

Radisson Blu, Edinburgh lounge area (TripAdvisor)

My roundabout tour of the lower levels takes me via the hotel’s main conference space – which is currently in turn-around mode between events when I sneak a peek. The room is a wonderful burst of monochrome tones in both carpets and wallcoverings, a clash of prints and the first sight I get of the ubiquitous locally-inspired artwork; it forms part of the eight meeting rooms the hotel offers, hosting up to 240 people for a range of event styles.

Radisson Blu, Edinburgh Meeting space

I am greeted at a busy but well-staffed reception area which also serves as an anchoring point between the hotel lounge-cum-breakout area and the food and beverage option Itchycoo Bar and Kitchen. One quick, seamless check-in later and I’m in my Business Class room – a room of the same standard as I stayed in when reviewing the Radisson Blu in Leeds, but one with a very different decor. It’s always fascinating to see how amenities remain the same, but how varied and different interpretations of the same brief can be. While Leeds relied on a metallic-inspired, blue-grey palette, Edinburgh goes for a more muted colour scheme of greys and browns in the bedroom and bathroom; with a splash of colour added by brightly-upholstered cushions.

Radisson Blu, Edinburgh bedroom

The living area is slightly smaller than I would normally expect for the price-range, but can be forgiven due to the fact the designers have managed to include everything required – and more – through good use of space. The room is dominated by the sweeping corner sofa unit, the double bed with its striking metallic headboard as well as the beautiful black-and-white artwork wallcovering of Edinburgh’s cityscape – it’s one of the better examples of a technique very much in vogue at the moment. If this is a taster of where Radisson Blu is headed with its BluPrint interior design concept, I can’t wait to see it rolled out across its global portfolio.

Other pleasing touches are the wall-mounted TV set into the wall, a decent-sized dressing mirror and a modest desk unit with ample lighting and thoughtfully-placed sockets – this is a business-oriented hotel after all. The bathroom is tastefully fitted out, predominated by dark wooden finishes and simple but elegant bathroom fittings. So far, very good.

Radisson Blu, Edinburgh bathroom detail

I decide to take a look at the hotel’s brand new pool and health club – it had opened mere days before my stay – which on the way to the lower levels also gives me a chance to assess the marked difference between the newly refurbished corridors and the pictures I’d seen prior to them being redone. Of particular note were the carpets as I’d been warned by colleagues in the industry of the less-than-acceptable state of them beforehand, but was pleased to see a sterling job has been done in making sure of the quality during the refurb (see above).

EDIT: The carpets throughout the hotel were provided by Newhey Carpets, who have built up a strong working relationship with the Radisson brand. They worked with Herefordshire-based Trevillion Interiors on the rooms and suites as well as the meeting rooms and event spaces. The designs were all created using Newhey’s state-of-the-art Colortec+ technology. Find out more here.

And the good news continued when I took a look at the Melrose Spa and the Health Club. This is a fantastic example of leisure design – clean lines, soft finishes and brilliant use of lighting create the soothing and relaxed environment so required of such a space. While this is open to the public, considering a good number of the guests will be corporate only in town for a day or two – having this facility will give the Radisson Blu real pulling power in a competitive city market.

Itchycoo at Radisson Blu, Edinburgh

After a long day travelling up from Hertfordshire, I enjoy a cocktail or two and dinner in the Itchycoo Bar and Kitchen (FULL REVIEW HERE) – the décor of which further reflects the business orientation of the hotel. But much like the mixture of the clientele in the restaurant that evening, to say this Radisson Blu can, does or will solely cater for the corporate guest is to underestimate its appeal. Indeed, tourists contribute some £1.6 billion to the Edinburgh economy each year and this Radisson’s location will make it a popular choice for several of the 4 million+ annual visitors to the Scottish capital.

Believe me, this hotel won’t stir any great reactions for its design or décor – but its fantastic functionality, comfortable and practical finish and more-than-ample amenities will ensure it remains a reliable choice for guests – either corporate or leisure…

Based on a stay in April 2016
radissonblu.com/en/hotel-edinburgh
Photos: Daniel Fountain & Radisson Blu, Edinburgh TripAdvisor

Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce

Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, Bruges

1000 550 Daniel Fountain

I still consider the historic centre of Bruges (or to use its correct, local name; ‘Brugge’) to be a relatively ‘hidden gem’. Of the numerous locations around Europe deemed appropriate for a city break, Bruges somehow still features low down on the lists of many people. Yet – and I say rather selfishly, ‘unfortunately’ – I figure it won’t stay this way for long as more and more people discover and fall as hopelessly in love with this beautifully quaint city as I have.

Be it summer or winter, there is an effortlessly relaxed vibe about Bruges; it’s a city comfortable with and yet nonchalant about its appeal, as if it doesn’t quite know how remarkable it is – which adds to its lure even more. Befitting a city oozing class and character, its countless independent hotels hidden at the ends of the famous ‘alcoves’ offer the visitor a delightful blend of understated luxury, old-world charm and homely service. Chain hotels can be found dotted around, as modernity begins to encroach, but even they must try to fit in with the city’s medieval aesthetic or set up shop further afield from the historic centre.

Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce

The timbered facade of the ‘canal’ side of the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce

Back in December I boarded the Eurostar headed for this ‘Venice of the North’ to revel in the joys of the city’s Christmas markets and had the pleasure of staying at the four-star, boutique Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce. My companion and I were in good company – it’s rumoured to be a favourite of the-now King and Queen of Belgium as well as the location for filming of the movie ‘In Bruges’ (cue all of those ‘ze alcoves’ jokes…) whose stars Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell called the hotel home during the shoot.

The building is made up of four medieval houses that were joined together in the 1720s. Its roots as a focal point of the city’s old business district are clear to see from the exterior, with its half-timbered façade and wooden, canal-side double doors guarding a store where stock used to be traded from. The timbered side of the hotel is also part of a ‘picture-perfect’ image of Bruges emblazoned all over the postcards available around the city, as it overlooks a famous scenic viewpoint on a bend in the main canal (see main image).

The building is set back from the tourist-heavy Woolestraat on a pedestrianised jetty which juts out over the canal. With this in mind, expect to see throngs of tourists using the jetty to take photographs overlooking the canal if you’re staying in one of the 11 ‘courtyard view’ rooms. These 11 make up the majority of the hotel’s 16 bedrooms; the other five offering ‘canal views’.

As soon as we enter the Bourgondisch Cruyce, we’re met with sumptuously elegant and indulgent interiors that hit us immediately. It doesn’t take me long to notice the rustic, wooden floorboards and lime wash wood furnishings set against rather garish light fixtures and Louis Vuitton chests. It’s an odd mix, but an oddly pleasing one. I’m also delighted to see the artwork (original, as I later find out…) scattered on the walls around the ground floor – the owner is clearly a serious collector – with works from the likes of Klimt, Matisse and amazingly Botero.

Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce
Our Superior Deluxe room is a ‘courtyard view’ offering and the bedroom is rustically but comfortably decorated. Antique items adorn the walls and surfaces and a beautiful, Persian-style rug dominates the majority of the floor. Despite the relatively small gap between the building housing the hotel and its neighbouring building (such were medieval architectural trends…), natural light still pours into the room through stylishly dressed double casement windows.

Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce

The lime wash look from the ground level makes its way into the rooms as the doors of the ample-sized wardrobes sport the look as well. It’s in the bathroom, however, where the biggest surprise and most interesting design choice can be found. Decadent, copper-hued marble dominating the walls, more wooden floorboards and ornate lampshades all add a touch of luxury to this well-laid out space – not to mention the superb Damana Earth and Sun toiletries set in a hamper-like basket. It’s at this point my companion sums up the feeling of the room perfectly – “homely, warm luxury,” she says. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

And that feeling is mirrored, if not accentuated, by the hotel’s public spaces. The lounge/bar area sits in an alcove (sorry, I couldn’t resist…) between the reception and lift area up to the rooms above. But it’s the dining room that wins the award for the hotel’s most sumptuous room. Built in an L-shape, its outer walls are all windowed, looking out over the canal, the inner bedecked with antique artworks, clocks and even a floor-to-ceiling tapestry on one of the sides and the floors smothered with more beautiful, detailed rugs. An open (albeit gas-powered) fire sits at one end within an ornate, wooden frame and under a rather sinister-looking Christ-on-Crucifix, a reminder of the very entrenched and deeply-rooted Christian identity of the city. The kitchen fills the rest of the L-shape and allows for easy access for the service team to the 24-cover dining area.

Allow me here an aside from the design elements for a brief moment; and tell you that it’s one of the best settings for breakfast I’ve experienced in my years of staying in hotels. And this, as evidenced by the public spaces and the bedrooms, is why this hotel works so well on so many levels. The owners have pitched the décor to fit in with the romanticism and history of Bruges perfectly, without it being too kitsch or trying too hard. Yet this has been done with an eye for luxury, detail and a guest’s every requirement in mind. It helps, too, that the owners have a well-oiled and professional team working for them throughout the hotel.

Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce

Photo: Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, TripAdvisor

I’ve stayed in many ‘city hotels’ around Europe. I’ve also stayed elsewhere in Bruges. And yes, there are more salubrious properties to be found in the city – think Duke’s Palace, Hotel de Orangerie and Hotel Prinsenhof – but the family-owned Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce is as close to the perfect city hotel as I’ve found. The owners have a gem of a hotel, an example for others to follow and boutique owners across the continent could learn a thing or two from this superb property. As they’d say in Flemish – ‘prachtig’…

Based on stay in December 2015
relaisbourgondischcruyce.be

Radisson Blu Leeds

Radisson Blu, Leeds

1024 768 Daniel Fountain

The Carlson Rezidor hotel group, over the last decade or so, has been steadily building up and expanding its portfolio across the globe with strategic purchases and a prudent selection of locations – think Radisson Blu’s planned and continuing expansion in Africa. With nearly 1,500 hotels and 170,000 rooms, its progress has been successful despite being a relative ‘David’ to the ‘Goliaths’ of Hilton and the now-merging Marriott-Starwood group.

And one of its brands in particular (since SAS pulled its partnership in 2009) has benefitted considerably. The Radisson Blu collection now boasts nearly 400 hotels open or in development in more than 80 locations around the world. And whenever I’ve visited a Radisson Blu property, from Dubai Media City to London Stansted, I’ve always found the brand’s offerings to be contemporarily designed and focused – usually with a lean towards the business traveller – and the service to be of a high standard. This recently revamped and refurbished Leeds chapter is no different.

Radisson Blu Leeds
The hotel is contained within the walls of the centrally-located and well-restored former home of the Leeds Permanent Building Society and directly neighbours the commercial complex ‘The Light’. As I arrive, I consider this fact might cause a noise pollution issue once inside the hotel, but my fears are allayed by the positioning of the public areas away from any of the main thoroughfares in the shopping complex.

This location means sprawling space is at a premium, so the ground level of the hotel is split cleverly between lobby area and bar/dining area to create the feeling of two distinct spaces, despite the two bleeding into each other structurally. One quick check-in and warm welcome from the manager Valerie Donaldson later and I’m walking through the corridor to my room, which gives me a chance to get a glimpse of the ‘doughnut’ structure of the inner well of the building from where the near-150 rooms in the hotel branch away and explains how the majority of rooms aren’t disturbed by activity in the shopping complex next door.

Radisson Blu Leeds
The darker, warmer hues of the corridors – with their grey-brown carpets, olive green wallcoverings and slight vintage feel – contrast with the cooler, industrial palettes of my modern room. I’m staying in a Junior Suite and as soon as I enter I’m struck by the considerable size of the room, especially considering the architect has had to factor in a curve of the exterior wall of the building. And, as mentioned, the room interior stands out immediately as having been designed to reflect an image of the modernity that the brand prides itself on espousing.

There are several little touches of clever design around the room; like the wooden-finished ‘pillar’, which quadruples up as a TV stand, a home for the mini-bar and tea and coffee facilities as well as a means of discreetly housing the mains sockets needed for the work desk – it’s a brilliant use of space and a tidy, well-thought-through solution to the question of where to locate all of these elements. As a rule, I’m a big fan of rooms with curved walls for the obvious aesthetic reasons, and it’s no different here with the designers having used the feature to great effect in order to light the room. (See image 2, below).

Further touches such as the ceiling paintwork matching the fabric of the soft furnishing on the bed, the impressive headboard of which all add to the feeling of the room being in the hands of a thoughtful and thematically-minded designer. I am surprised to see the bold use of coal-grey floor tiles throughout the bedroom and living space – mostly because, while these complement the clinical and modern feel, it’s a vast space for the housekeeping team to ensure is always clean. I needn’t have worried, as both underneath the bed and under the 12’x6’ rug were spotless.

The bathroom’s use of tiles creates a completely different feel, with tiling making up a dazzling three-quarter-wall of brilliant blue overlaid on a beige-brown, clear wall. (See images below) Likewise, the half-moon glass basin container and simplistically functional finishing of the bathroom fittings (provided by HD Directory members GROHE) work very well.

Radisson Blu Leeds

There are some tell-tale signs that this is a hotel designed with business users in mind; namely the ‘economical’ wardrobe space available – perfect for short stays but not practical for more than two people staying for several nights – and the good number of mains sockets strategically located around the room for the inevitable number of devices required on a business trip. Given this focus, it came as no surprise to see the level of quality in the design and finish of the hotel’s meeting facilities located on the newly refurbished mezzanine level. The space is flexible enough to offer a range of events – especially with the breakout room having the space for a full bar – and a touch I particularly like is the meeting room titles; each named after a Yorkshire-related theme and containing small items in each room to reflect its individual title.

Radisson Blu Leeds
The hotel is unique in the UK, and indeed outside of the US, in as much as it houses the only Fire Lake Grill House & Cocktail Bar – the flagship restaurant of the Minnesota-based hotel brand – beyond American borders. As a dining option for guests for breakfast, lunch or dinner, this ‘industrial chic’, left-field-decorated eatery is impressive. The conversation-starting focal points of design include the huge, striking wall display of Leeds-born actor Peter O’Toole brought to life by upward-facing lamps as well as a floor-to-ceiling fire pit. Having done prior research into the previous space and its interiors, which were classically-inspired and somewhat dated, this incarnation is a huge improvement. (A FULL REVIEW OF FIRE LAKE CAN BE READ ON OUR SISTER SITE PA LIFE)…

Combine this four-star Leeds hotel with its restaurant and its meeting spaces and you have a convincing case as to why the wider Radisson Blu collection has to be one of the most consistent upper-upscale brands globally. Like the other properties in the chain I’ve visited and stayed in, this property will do a good trade with weekend-breakers and even more so with businesspeople. But make no mistake, this is a well-designed hotel where comfort hasn’t been forgotten in the planning-to-production process – indeed, who says business-like practicality can’t have a touch of luxury? Add to this the fact manager Valerie Donaldson has a professional, committed team working with her and you have the foundations for a very successful property for the Radisson Blu brand.

Indeed, I’m reminded of a note I read when I arrived in my room under the heading ‘Manager’s Guarantee’ which said: ‘We’ll make your stay right or you won’t pay’. The manager can sleep easy because, on this evidence, she won’t need to be handing out complimentary stays very often at all…

Based on a stay in January 2016
www.radissonblu.com

Anantara Eastern Mangroves Spa & Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa, Abu Dhabi

700 463 Daniel Fountain

When I first moved to the UAE back in mid-2011, I had come to the conclusion after several previous holidays that Dubai was the centre of it all as far as the country was concerned. I knew Abu Dhabi was the nation’s capital, but I viewed it much like I do American state capitals — smaller and less important than some of the bigger metropoles like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

So, it was little wonder it took me more than 6 months to venture the hour-and-a-half on the Sheikh Zayed Road highway through the desert to visit the ‘little cousin’ of the emirate I then called home. Of course, in wealth terms, Abu Dhabi is very much the ‘Granddaddy’ of the UAE; its investment fund surpasses the other emirates’ combined.

But in tourism terms, Dubai has been forging a very successful path for several decades now, which had left Abu Dhabi considerably further behind. And on my first visit to the capital, I didn’t see anything that would change my perception. But by 2013, when I went to stay at the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa for the first time, the landscape had changed considerably.

By then, Abu Dhabi’s rulers were pumping money into all sorts of projects — most famously Ferrari World and the city’s Grand Prix – in a bid to catch up with Dubai. On the whole, they’re doing well. And this Anantara property — the third in the emirate — is a shining example of the ‘no-holds-barred luxury’ Abu Dhabi is now regularly attaining.

The enormous and expansive arrival lobby and reception area of this new-build property, complete with impressive, ornate bowls of the ubiquitous dates and over-attentive staff with welcome drinks, certainly set the tone for this property. Much like the rest of this hotel, there is a clever Asia-meets-Arabia balance in the interior design, mixing the Thailand-based Anantara name and Abu Dhabi’s penchant for being the more authentically Arab city compared to Dubai.

You are hit with views of the 1.2 kilometre nature reserve set among the mangroves as soon as you step into the lobby and it’s hard to avoid them wherever you go throughout the hotel. But with meandering creeks, birds and wildlife abounding and the Abu Dhabi city skyline shimmering in the distance — it’s more a question of why you would want to avoid them. One does get the feeling that the functionality of the hotel has been slightly tipped in the favour of business guests, something that comes through in the design of the 222 rooms. The two I stayed in had a somewhat business-like feel, but certainly didn’t lack for luxury or size (rooms start at 57m2). They still retain an ornate finish, with dark timbers, beautiful swirl-patterned carpets, lush upholstery in bronzes, greens and golds and intricate woodwork above and around the beds in the suites.

Anantara Eastern Mangroves Spa & Hotel, Abu Dhabi

If possible, an upgrade to one of the Kasara Mangroves suites on the ground floor is a recommended one as they are three times larger than the standard rooms and offer their own private pool area. If not, another tip would be to choose a mangrove-facing room as the alternative gives a less than savoury view of the busy Salam Street — and while triple-glazing puts paid to any noise pollution — it’s worth requesting the former for the views alone. The bathrooms, while minimalist in shape are a definition of luxury with a stunning marble finish throughout.

*On a side note, I was also informed that the Royal Mangroves Residence is the largest suite of its kind in the UAE — and so it should be at a staggering 1,320m2 with a capacity for 10 people*

The ostentatious Arabian elegance (is there any other kind?) of the hotel continues in the public areas. Walls are lined with 18-carat gold leaf and glittering mosaics, timber trellises all set against domed ceiling insets and arched windows. Outside, a centralised infinity pool offers perfect views of the surrounding natural beauty and watching the sun set behind the city skyline is a quite spectacular way to spend an evening. One flaw I will point out in the design of the pool area, however, is the expanse of the stone flooring means walking from a further lounger to the pool in the searing summer heat without suitable footwear isn’t an option.

As a destination hotel — there was very little else around the hotel when I visited — the food and beverage outlets are of a higher standard than perhaps expected in Abu Dhabi. The highlights include the very impressive Impressions rooftop terrace bar and we dined in the excellent Pachalyen signature Thai restaurant, with the almost-stereotypical bamboo cage screens, Buddha-inspired decorative items and ‘economical’ lighting.

Anantara Eastern Mangroves Spa & Hotel, Abu Dhabi

But this being a spa hotel, this is where the property shines. In terms of design and interior, this is one of the better I’ve had the pleasure of visiting — dripping in opulence, the sheer attention to detail in everything from the Turkish hammam to the individual treatment rooms is difficult to find fault with.

Anantara Eastern Mangroves Spa & Hotel, Abu Dhabi

The beautiful Turkish hammam of the spa

Anantara Eastern Mangroves Spa & Hotel, Abu Dhabi

The fantastic use of light in the spa’s salon

The occupancy numbers were low when I stayed in the off-season, so the hotel appeared empty at times, but it’s probably more due to the sheer scale of this property that I imagine it wouldn’t feel overcrowded even at full capacity. And with Abu Dhabi’s tourism trade improving and increasing year-on-year, you can expect this property to be closer to full than empty on a regular basis.

Words by Daniel Fountain. Based on visits in 2013 and 2015
www.abu-dhabi.anantara.com

London Hilton Bankside

London Hilton Bankside

730 388 Daniel Fountain

One of the perks of my job is being able to see the progression of hotels from mere ideas and drawings right through to the bricks and mortar of a completed project. And one thing that always fascinates me is how much (and sometimes how little) the finished product can differ from the concept first visualised by designers and architects.

So, it’s a welcome treat to be given a guided tour of a hotel and its eventual form by one of the people commissioned to design it — as I recently got to do with Dexter Moren of the eponymous firm of associates at the Hilton London Bankside.

Located in what is now one of the most fashionable and ‘trendy’ areas of the capital, this five-star property built on the site of a former banknote recycling shed might never have come to fruition. Bankside’s industrial past and ‘rustic’ character meant that Dexter Moren Associates (DMA) and design firm Twenty2Degrees were originally briefed to create a mixed development combining a budget hotel, conference and leisure facilities — something more befitting of the surroundings at the time; as ‘south of the river wasn’t the place for five-star properties at the time’, Dexter reminds me.

Fast forward a decade and then some — the ever-growing reputation of The Globe, the Tate Modern and more recently The Shard — and throw in the considerable money spent on regenerating the area; the brief was clearly changed to combine those separate ‘sectors’ into one urban-inspired and luxurious property. Thankfully, for those of us now lucky enough to see the end product first-hand, the Hilton group agreed to back developers Splendid Hotels. And the rest, as they say, is history…

Off the bat, it’s clear to see the exterior of the hotel is heavily inspired by the cutting edge, artistic modernity of its locale. Dexter explains to me the rationale behind the separate but thematically-connected facades of the two adjoining elements of the building and their differing heights (restrictions on building any higher than current and proposed neighbours meant one element had to be lower than the other), both use a striking combination of traditional brickwork and metallic cladding, all of which go to fit in with the surrounding buildings.

London Hilton Bankside

Detail of the Bankside exterior (Photo: dextermoren.com)

Arriving at the hotel via the porte-cochere is the perfect segue between the exterior and interior, with its stunning pressed tinwork on the ceiling and dazzling display of bespoke industrial lights designed by DMA and Twenty2Degrees — hinting at the fact that the inside will continue the ‘design voice’ proudly expressed on the outside. Likewise, the lobby area echoes the clearly defined theme running throughout and, as with so many of the hotel’s public spaces, particularly impressive here is the lighting fixture specifically designed for the high-ceilinged reception area.

Again, I’m struck by the delicate balance of industrial chic and clean-lined elegance that has been achieved. Also, unlike many hotels I’ve visited in the past, the executive lounge is situated on the ground floor and while still retaining a sumptuous feel and serene atmosphere — as well as a stunning light well letting in natural light — it has been built to back onto the kitchen facilities for the ease of access for staff, who have a centralised point of entry for each food and beverage outlet thanks to clever design.

Little nods to the Bankside history run throughout the design of the hotel’s F&B offerings too; namely the Distillery Bar and the restaurant OXBO. The former is a destination cocktail venue with old world charm, the name of which is a reference to the Stephenson & Howell Standard Works distillery that occupied part of the site during the 1800s. The latter has been designed with both exclusivity and functionality in mind – perforated steel screens provide privacy in the open space as well as being strategically positioned to allow for smaller groups of guests to ensure the restaurant retains a ‘lively’ vibe — being both the dining space for hotel guests and a walk-in option for non-guests.

Many of the decorative items, such as the crystal decanters have been sourced from local markets and antiques dealers in Bermondsey and Spitalfields and are combined to give the space a light-hearted, authentic feel. The lighting is a bespoke design for the restaurant and was manufactured by British lighting company Northern Lights and Danish company Fransden Project. The restaurant’s wide range of cuisine is hinted at by the ‘Mounted Not Stuffed’ artwork by David Farrer, a cornucopia of papier-mâché animal heads scattered throughout the restaurant.

It’s here I can make a quick aside to the fantastic Penny Wall in the bar, designed to reflect the aforementioned use of the site as a banknote warehouse, which contains nearly 17,000 hand-applied pennies and sits impressively on a wall that had to be reinforced to take the extra weight. With coins dating from 1864 and an opportunity for civic leaders, dignitaries and the local community to add a penny to the wall themselves, it’s the hotel fitting into its surroundings in a very real and actionable way.

Moving upstairs and the guestrooms have not been exempted from the industrial, London aesthetic. The corridor carpets, with their brown and green hues and again designed by Twenty2Degrees and DMA, were commissioned to reflect the ‘ebb and flow’ of the River Thames just a stone’s throw away. With the guestroom materials including concrete-effect wall coverings and limed timber, these sharp materials are contrasted by sleek Italian-style furniture and upholstery as well as winged headboards that create the warmth required in luxurious rooms. Bold greys dominate in the bathrooms – floor and half-wall tiles combine with the pale travertine tiling on the rest of the walls to create a clean, clinical feel.

Hilton_Bankside_Bathroom

The bold greys of the bathrooms in the London Hilton Bankside (Photo: London Hilton Bankside)

And one of the elements of room design that I found most interesting and useful was the separate entrance area for ‘adjoining’ rooms — rather than an adjoining entrance built into the wall of each room, both rooms have an individual front door behind a centralised front door to create a ‘hallway’ of sorts. As Dexter pointed out, this helps with noise control between the rooms and offers an added layer of privacy — especially for those travelling with families.

But the jewel in the crown of this slick, stylish hotel is the grand ballroom on the sub-ground level. The breath-taking space is something the hotel (and Dexter himself) are very proud of — and rightly so. With a separate entrance built at the rear of the hotel building to allow event or function attendees to arrive separately from the hullabaloo of the main entrance, the ballroom is accessed in grand style by a sweeping staircase with marble treads, brass handrail and smoked glass balustrade.

Aside from the sheer scale of the space, the luxury and attention to detail marks this as a wonderfully unique location in the heart of the capital. It is designed to be flexible, with as little or as much space an event may require on offer as well as being able to open out to include balcony areas and the lobby for arrivals or break-outs. The dark walls are complemented by a pale carpet and subtly patterned wall-covering. For me, however, the centrepiece is the inclusion of ultra-modern chandeliers whose individual, interlinked cubed LED lights are a work of ingenuity and beauty.

And that’s the best way to summarise the Hilton London Bankside — a combination of brilliant and beautiful design. From the use of space – like the well-equipped gym and 17-metre swimming pool hidden away underground – to the bold and memorable interiors, Dexter Moren’s team and Twenty2Degrees have created a property with a clear and cemented identity. The brief to create a luxurious hotel in this part of London has been met and exceeded. But it’s in the little touches that this project truly shines. From the playful ‘Urban Fox’ motif referenced subtly more than 100 times throughout the hotel including in the bedrooms — in reference to a fox that would visit the site during construction — to the work of young British artists scattered throughout the property in a tribute to the Tate Modern around the corner.

A Hilton-branded hotel, which has more in common with a boutique offering than a cookie-cutter repeat, which from pavement to bedroom makes it very clear that it ‘belongs’ in its up-and-coming locale south of the Thames, that keeps luxury prevalent throughout and is designed with detail at the forefront? A project I never thought I’d see — but thanks to Dexter and the work of his team, the reality is better than the imaginings of this humble journalist. Bravo…

Words by Daniel Fountain. Based on a tour in November, 2015
www.hilton.com/hilton-london-bankside

Hotel Indigo, York

Hotel Indigo, York

793 461 Daniel Fountain

Very often, when out and about reviewing hotels or sifting through property announcements at HotelDesigns HQ, I encounter some variation on that old hospitality cliché: ‘modernity blended with history’- and very often, it’s a lazy and inaccurate description. But every now and again, I have the pleasure of staying in a hotel and a location that epitomises the phrase. The Hotel Indigo in York is one such property.

York is a city I never need a second invitation to visit – with its maze of twisting, cobbled streets, quaint architecture and two millennia of history teeming from its very core – it’s a gold mine for amateur historiographers like myself. So, it was with little hesitation that I made the journey north to review my first Hotel Indigo – the boutique brand of the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Self-styled as ‘the industry’s first branded boutique hotel experience’, Hotel Indigo now has a presence across North America, UK and Europe as well as China and south-east Asia. Each unique property is as individual as its surroundings and attempts to reflect this through its interiors and design. A ‘local slant’ is key to the Hotel Indigo ethos, as is its quirky and contemporary décor. With properties in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Shanghai, I imagine blending this local touch with interesting and modern interiors was a relatively easy task. However, enveloped on all sides by a section of a city with a rich heritage and standing on one of its oldest streets, this process could have proven slightly more difficult for the designers of this York property. Not so.

Yorkshire is well represented in everything from individual items of furniture to the selection of ales in the bar/restaurant on the ground floor. Even the bathroom toiletries have been sourced from Harrogate company H2K, which is just twenty miles from the hotel. And the wonderfully twee touches in the décor – like framed photos referencing the area’s confectionary heritage to the 1893 Kelly’s Directory (the Yellow Pages of its time) printed on bedside lampshades – all give off the boutique vibe whilst fitting in with the Hotel Indigo brand vision.

Being a new-build property, the whole hotel has a clean and vibrant feel from the moment you walk through the door.

 

 

HotelIndigoMontage2

Directly opposite the modest reception desk, the aforementioned bar and restaurant – a franchise of the Yorkshire Meatball Company and with public access to the street outside – serve as the focal point of the hotel’s public space. The confectionary theme is continued here with chuckle-inducing jelly-mould pendant lampshades and Skittles-esque cushions scattered on sofas.

Taking the lift up to room level would mean missing out on the hotel’s spectacular staircase complete with a three-storey well, which adds a touch of grandeur to the journey from check-in to room. The well-lit (and thankfully spacious) corridors are carpeted with a fantastically rich black and white pattern throughout, reminiscent of the great M.C. Escher and works from the optical art movement.

The rooms themselves are blessed with good natural light (if not the best views) from the windows, but are also equipped with generous lighting throughout so there’s never a gloomy corner to contend with. While the colour scheme is muted for the most part, it’s punctuated with sharp, primary-coloured items which definitely adds to the sense of fun.

Both the desk and bedside tables have good socket access and I couldn’t find fault with the king-sized bed with the Egyptian cotton linen, but was slightly disappointed with the amount of wardrobe space on offer.

It’s at this point I will admit that I am guilty of rating an entire hotel experience on the quality of its bathroom space, and Hotel Indigo scores highly here too. The spa-inspired space and its layout are well designed and the team have displayed virtuosity in the contrast of materials used. The absence of a bathtub is more than countered by the walk-in, glass enclosed shower with a rainfall head.

Simply put, a stay here is a pleasure. Whilst Hotel Indigo might be a chain, the rooms and the hotel’s public spaces certainly have their own character and charm filled with endearing local touches.

The designers have done a great job of ensuring the guest doesn’t get the ‘chain hotel’ feeling. They have been able to engender a feeling of a contemporary boutique hotel whilst not neglecting the fact its backdrop is one of the most historic cities in England. The ever-growing popularity of boutique hotels and their strong, overriding identity and ‘sense of place’ has meant the larger chains have had to adapt in a bid to capture some of the market. With its Hotel Indigo brand – and this York property in particular – IHG has proven it understands the market extremely well and has certainly established a solid blueprint for a successful ‘branded boutique’.

As someone who transformed from slightly sceptical of the concept to a fully-fledged convert overnight thanks to this York gem; if you’re not convinced I highly recommend going through the conversion process for yourself.

Images courtesy of hotelindigoyork.co.uk and Daniel Fountain. Based on review in September 2015.

Adagio Aparthotel, Birmingham exterior

Adagio Aparthotel, Birmingham

700 466 Daniel Fountain

In recent years, the global hospitality industry has been marking the steady rise in popularity of the ‘aparthotel’. And looking at the trends, it makes sense. Hotels are experimenting with stripping away some of their services, while serviced apartments are adding services as wide ranging as childcare and in-room spa treatments.

So, as the lines between serviced apartments and hotels become ever-blurred, a previously untapped niche in the market is quickly being filled. Why not combine the two? On the continent, Adagio — part of the Accor Hotel group — has been claiming a considerable portion of this ever-growing market with aparthotel properties across France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. But, here in the UK following a successful launch in Liverpool in 2013, a second Adagio aparthotel has opened in Birmingham.

Located perfectly, being within five minutes’ walk of New Street Station and the Bullring Shopping Centre, I had the chance to take a look at this four-star, new-build aparthotel shortly before it made its grand opening earlier this month. The Adagio is a pioneering part of the proposed major redevelopment of the Digbeth area of the city centre; forming the first phase of the Beorma Quarter development scheme (named for the Anglo Saxon king and founder of the city now known as Birmingham), which will also see the refurbishment of listed buildings to become sustainable, geo-thermal commercial spaces.

Adagio Aparthotel, Birmingham

The apartments offer a spectacular view of the Birmingham city skyline
(Photo: Dale Martin – dalemartinphoto.com)

And the Adagio pays homage to its historical location by marking – with a brass line embedded into the walls and floor – the 7th century boundaries of the ancient city of Hersum Ditch directly through its reception area. A nice touch, I thought — especially as a history graduate. But, thankfully for the modern traveller, everything else about the Adagio is contemporaneous.

Adagio Aparthotels, Birmingham

Many of the furnishings are from continental Europe, reflecting the history and background of the Adagio name (Photo: Dale Martin – dalemartinphoto.com)

From its choice of furnishings to the bold photographic artwork of locally iconic locations in the apartments, the communal areas and range of suites all ooze modernity. The breakfast dining room and lounge area are spacious, modestly but tastefully decorated and superbly naturally lit thanks to their expansive floor to ceiling windows. The property’s two-person studio and one-bedroom apartments are finished to an excellent standard with warm, neutral tones generously punctuated by bold, red-focussed pieces — no doubt to complement the reddish hue of the wider Adagio colour motif. Many of the furnishings throughout the hotel are imported from Europe and in particular France, which is understandable given Adagio is a joint project between Accor and the Paris-headquartered Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs group.

Adagio Aparthotel, Birmingham

The communal areas – such as this breakfast dining area – are filled with natural light thanks to the floor to ceiling windows (Photo: Dale Martin – dalemartinphoto.com)

Space has been utilised well, too, with each apartment containing sizable bathroom space and fold-down beds in the studios. The only small criticism might come with the size of the kitchen areas, which while well-equipped certainly won’t be used for entertaining large groups. The range of services on offer include high-speed WiFi, a fitness suite, laundry and dry cleaning as well as a room cleaning service tailored to varying lengths of stays.

Adagio Aparthotel, Birmingham

The use of locally-inspired black and white photography artwork intejects the rooms’ reddish hues perfectly (Photo: Dale Martin – dalemartinphoto.com)

With the potential market of aparthotels as varied as it is – business travellers, university students, contract workers and even long-weekend visitors — it is surprising how few aparthotels there are across the UK. Investment has been slow to take off, especially compared with other key markets such as New York and Hong Kong. But heading into the latter half of the decade, we can expect that to change.

Adagio Aparthotel, Birmingham

The aparthotel utilises space well, especially in the studio rooms – where the bed folds down to shift the space from a living area to a bedroom area effortlessly (Photo: Dale Martin – dalemartinphoto.com)

Adagio is definitely using the UK as a growth market, with further aparthotels planned for Edinburgh and London — and if future properties are as well designed, excellently furnished and centrally located as the Birmingham Adagio, the firm will be at the forefront of a growing and increasingly popular market.

Words by Daniel Fountain. Reviewed just before opening in August, 2015.

Le Belmont, Paris

Le Belmont, Paris (Daniel Goff)

988 659 Daniel Fountain

In March I made a long overdue trip back from the antipodean colonies to the motherland. To break up the frenetic efforts to see everyone, I took a short trip across La Manche to stay briefly in picturesque Paris and lodging at a French classic, Le Belmont.

Le Belmont is a four star hotel in the heart of the city. The building is a very old block, typical of Paris, and has all of the character that goes with it. Its location just off the Champs-Élysées is a major attraction, placing the hotel at the heart of tourist Paris. Both the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe are a 10 minute walk and there is a metro station at the end of the street.

Le Belmont, Paris
The hotel is decorated in a pseudo Parisian Palatial style, cut with marks of modernism. The public areas filled with furniture leaning towards a French aristocratic persuasion but the rooms have modern colourful chandeliers and the fireplace is filled with colour-changing LED candles.

The corridors are somewhat confronting, as they lack good lighting, and as a consequence are very dark, emphasised by the paint colours. The bedrooms are in a typically extravagant style but with a clear budget restraint. While the headboards appear as velvet curtaining in the imagery, this is actually a printed fabric with a fabric panel across the top, to give a more three dimensional effect.

Le Belmont, Paris
Each room has a large flat-screen TV and a multitude of languages are catered for by the channels. The minibar is modestly stocked and priced and the staff were more than happy to uncork my bottle of vin de table I had bought at the shop around the corner. The bedrooms are well proportioned and feel cared for, although the shower-room door in my room appeared to be an old access door painted (badly) black. The en suite shower rooms feel luxurious, despite being restricted in size. The showers are generously proportioned and the complimentary toiletries are, appropriately, Hermès.

In the morning the small cocktail bar/lounge is used to serve breakfast. The offering is the usual cooked selection, along with an array of French pastries which are spectacularly delicious.

Le Belmont, Paris
The hotel also has a spa offering a plethora of treatments in a number of treatment rooms, as well as housing a Turkish bath and glass roofed gym. The area is designed with a more eastern feel, which gives a gentle contrast to the main hotel, without losing its Frenchness.

From a visit by Dan Goff in March 2015

Sofitel, St. James’s (Patrick Goff)

270 150 Daniel Fountain

I have reviewed a Sofitel before – the Sofitel Hamburg. It was an hotel I found very difficult to like; the décor was cool and minimalist, grey and indeterminate, lacking (it seemed to me) in the air of opulence and luxury that I expect from a five star hotel. Having designed such establishments, I know the kind of design cues needed to create the right ambience, and as Hamburg fell short, I had mixed expectations of the St. James’s property.

The location is right at the bottom of Waterloo Place, close to the Institute of Directors and in the heart of London. The building used to be a bank and it has a good street presence, fitting for a 5 star hotel. From the outside at least I was not disappointed, its late Victorian portico entrance an agreeable part of the mosaic of grandeur that makes up this area of town.

Looking to the side of the lobby opposite the Reception desk, towards the restaurant and bar – click tosee the nicely done reception desk

“…rather than associate itself with Waterloo – a name unacceptable to the French…”

I’ve always thought of St. James’s as the part further down, around the palace, but the hotel adopts that name rather than associate itself with Waterloo – a name unacceptable to the French even today – or with, perhaps, Haymarket and its theatres. Haymarket and its link with the theatrical demi-monde is perhaps too louche for the kind of associations the hotel wants in defining its luxury appeal to its desired clientèle. Instead, the operator creates its own sense of upmarket theatre.

Starting with the smart, smiling, top-hatted doorman, the sense of theatre is enhanced by a glass screen inside the doors. Illuminated, passing this allows the guest to experience the revelation of the lobby as if a stage curtain had been raised.

The reception desk is on one side, the splendidly design restaurant on the other behind an informal service desk. An exhibition of slightly kitsch decorative sculpture in the lobby was stopped from dominating by a very theatrical floral display. The theatricality was reinforced in the evening by the introduction of candle lanterns, the normal lighting being subtly adjusted.

The screen inside the front door acts as a sound and draught baffle. Internally lit the script details the history of the building, Click to see the impressive exterior from Waterloo Place

King’s Head, Cirencester (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Putting new in old, contemporary into antique, can be a difficult trick. Mix in English vernacular style and wave a designers’ wand. Magic in the Kings’ Head in Cirencester lifted my spirits almost as soon as I walked in the door.

Open space with views that interest and also excite. Informality combined with tradition. There is space to pause and stare before engaging with the staff. History in view, from the exposed wall construction to the Roman mosaic under the floor lit and seen through a glass floor panel.

Doorways and openings that say there’s more beyond. Eclectic and stylish both operator and designer, architect and builders have worked hard to preserve and project the sense of Englishness and history embodied by both the town and the property. This is not just a revitalising of one run down old hotel this is the redevelopment of a significant and important collection of buildings making up a large part of Cirencester’s heart. If there is a downside it is that it is too close to Jeremy Clarkson…

King's Head Cirencester

This is Range Rover land. The Cotswolds surrounding Cirencester are one of the most affluent areas of England outside the hideously expensive capital city. ‘Chelsea tractors’ abound, but local is also strong and is reflected in the abundance of local foods and the street market that sets up outside the hotel.

Given the affluence of the area the only surprise about the Kings Head is that it has taken so long for it to happen. That the owner has vision is a given, but the adaptation owes a great deal to the local influences and suppliers so cleverly employed and developed by designers Calico alongside an hotel management team that are also tapped into the same vernacular.

I have talked before in articles about the resurgence of an English vernacular. It can be seen in hotels as diverse as the revamped Mercure Box Hill, less convincingly in the Mondrian on London’s Southbank of the Thames, more successfully in seaside hotels like St. Michaels Hotel in Falmouth.

2014-10-09 Kings Head 023

Whilst the Scots shriek about their identity, in our own quiet way many English designers are bringing back the pride in being English through their stylish reinterpretation of traditional forms, forms that emphasise visual and psychological comfort; forms that don’t seek to shout style in an egotistical ‘look at me I’m a designer’ manner, but quietly provide a guest with a place in which they can comfortably be themselves; forms which say ‘this is where you are’ too, acknowledging both location and history.

The Kings Head does all this, and more.

Here the design of much of the furniture, fabrics and more has been originated by the designers. Yet the origination has been faithful to what has gone before — this is design at its best, evolutionary not revolutionary, founded in an understanding of locality and identity alike.

The designers told me: “We were involved from the very beginning and can remember walking around before many rooms had walls. We advised on layouts sourced & procured all FF & E items, we advised on the concept mood and feel of the hotel, choosing colour schemes through to set up. We were fortunate that the hotel is a truly beautiful building with so many original and interesting details that just needed to be exposed.”

Design of hotels, perhaps more than most buildings, need to be a team effort, involving owners, operator and designers. Design has to work from the inside out, and the designers here stress that they we part of a team, saying: “It was a team effort! A collaboration between the owners Mark & Alison Booth, the building contractors, and the interior designers.”

King's Head, Cirencester

More than this, of course , there would have been architect and structural engineers, QS etc. but in my experience the role of other professionals in hotels is less important in realising the full potential of the earning power of an hotel. In my experience the sensitivity of the contractor involved to the history and sense of place is also vital to making a success of such a project. Here the designers praise the building contractors saying: “They under took the task with great compassion as at most stages new parts of the building became exposed and then had to be incorporated into the design.”

Typical of many projects on historic sites, at one stage in the project there was a 2 year delay to explore the archaeology, and given the cost of creating an hotel like this (reported to me as £7.5 million so far) then this must have added grey hair to the developers head, as time is definitely money. However here the respect given to the existing structures (because this was more than one building, but a series of interlinked buildings of different ages) has resulted in some magical interior space, including in some of the currently 45 bedrooms.

There are plans (and spaces) to expand the number of bedrooms, and given the ability of the hotel to host quite large functions and meetings, increased bedroom numbers will be needed. On my visit two functions for 400 people had already been booked and the expansion of the public areas with additional bar and dining space as well as the completion of the spa and gym were all in hand.

The labyrinthine layout springs surprises at every turn. There is a staircase where the details of the bracket holding the hand rails feature heads that change in age with each floor.There are stone walls, sensitively lit , with pieces of Roman mosaic leaning against them. Antiquity maximised in impact, married to the best of modern lighting.

King's Head, Cirencester

The spaces being re-purposed (as the current phrase would have it) are interesting in themselves. A previous generation made its wealth from wool, for which Britain in earlier centuries was a major producer. Whole towns based their wealth on the wool trade and here the cellar previously used, it is believed, as a wool ‘warehouse’ will serve a new generation as a bar/bistro and function area.
There is a secret little roof garden onto which open meeting rooms and a function space. There is a glorious Georgian or high Victorian ballroom with stylish chandeliers. All these spaces creating a sense that as one explores the hotel further more secrets will be revealed.

The current bedrooms are all individual in style, and original roof timbers, fireplaces and construction have been kept and featured in the sensitive interior design. Panelled rooms have been kept panelled, although the panelling may well have been completely renewed. The interest in the antique has not extended to guest services and a comprehensive TV entertainment system compliments a free and efficient Wi-Fi service throughout the hotel.

The hotel is not only adding a spa and gym, that will be open to non-residents but other buildings in the complex structure ware planned to be utilised as office space with the tenants having access to hotel facilities. This holistic approach to the property is cleverly building in additional income streams to the business.

Bedrooms are spacious and most offer a soaking tub and separate shower, Clever use is made of ceramic tiling that mimics timber flooring, giving bathrooms and antique look , whilst there is nothing antique about the performance of the power showers in their wet room enclosures.

Whilst many London hotels have shrunken bedrooms, often forcing designers to innovate to provide space for luggage as well as the guest, here space is not an issue, the building layout having been developed to ensure all bedroom are a good size.

Corridors frequently shown, in their meandering path around the building, the different construction elements with exposed beams, exposed brickwork and rough plaster finishes highlighted by well placed LED lighting. The hotel is comfortable not only for the guest as an hotel, but it is also comfortable with its history and location. The property enhances Cirencester and encapsulates it from its Roman status through Saxon, Georgian and Victorian to enthusiastically embracing English style in the 21st Century.

King's Head, Cirencester

The design approach here is a delight, the vernacular blended skilfully with the contemporary. Perhaps because the hotel is not a major brand it shares an approach seen more commonly in South Africa where brands are noticeable by their absence leaving hotels like Chappies or the Royal at Riebeck to carry the same local identity.

The Kings’ Head delighted me. It deserves design awards. It deserves to succeed. If early indicators are right it is already doing so…

©Words and Pictures Patrick Goff
From a visit in October 2014

Midland Hotel, Morecambe (Patrick Goff)

270 150 Daniel Fountain

Breezy Bay for Bracing Blows

October and the sea temperature is nearly 70 degrees, and bikini clad sunbathers catch the last rays of the summer topping up their tans on beaches where the sea laps its tide of suntan oil against the unvarying line of the years detritus deposited by the waves of the Mediterranean.
In Morecambe the dog walkers are getting accustomed to layers again, sou’westers are the garb for cyclists and even joggers are wearing several layers of kit whilst the dog walkers dogs too are dressed for a gale.Across the bay the peaks of the Cumbrian fells reflect the setting sun as the more adventurous strollers race back to safety of the shore as a tidal rise of ten metres sends the waves roaring at cyclist’s speeds across the stretches of sand, cutting deep gullies slyly to catch out the unwise.

The shallowness of the bay precludes a normal lifeboat for their rescue but the RNLI has a hovercraft ready to sprint to the aid of the unwary if need be.

As with any seaside building one winter is enough to take the bloom off any paint finish as salt laden winds erode cement. Click to see how close to the beach the hotel is
looking like a beached ocean liner, the hotel has spectacular views over Morecambe Bay towards Barrow-in-Furness and along the coast to the Lake District. Click to see a detail of the bar terrace over looking the beach
Restaurant areas maximise the views over the Bay for diners. Click to look from the inside out
“Like a beached liner the Midland Hotel is the dowager observer of this northern English seaside”
Like a beached liner the Midland Hotel is the dowager observer of this northern English seaside, its façade battling to stay white whilst turning grey with encrusting salt from the briny spray the wind drives across the shore. Grace and beauty were once the architects dream at the behest of a now defunct railway company, and little is left of the busy port it once served.Instead of reflecting the ship breakers yard the hotel’s picture windows reflect the pinks and grey blues of the sunset on the fells across the bay. Diners and drinkers can enjoy the views protected from air that can at times be over-bracing, and too forcibly fresh.

Recent research has shown shore dwellers live longer. That may be so, but their industries don’t. Neglect by generations of politicians has contributed to the decline of this once prosperous seaside town, as indeed it has too many of the shrinking towns in the North West. They shrink as the young and aspirational move in search of fortune and perhaps fame elsewhere, often to the expensive and overcrowded South East where the political elite concentrate on feathering their own nests rather than regenerating the declining towns of the North.

Here even the Western themed cowboy fun park is shuttered on a bleak seafront where the gleam of the Midland sounds a lonely rallying call to those who would see life return to this birthplace of Morecambe and Wise. There are few jokes in this decline, but the hotel does enjoy the quiet beauty of its near isolation in the gorgeous Lakeland landscape.

Behind the Reception desk is the Gill relief, stolen, fought over and eventually returned to its rightful place in the listed building. Click to see the spectacular lobby staircase

Swinton Park Spa, Yorkshire (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

I try to look at different types of hotels in both Reviews (166 of them) and Miniviews (and there are over 150 of those), different qualities, national characteristics, different approaches to design. There are lessons for designers in all of them.

Namibian hotels like Damaraland, for example, shows how to maximise the use of eco-systems such as solar power, solar water heating and localised sewage systems. German hotels seem to handle luxury much more confidently than anywhere else I have been, epitomised by Steigenberger. Local vernacular too shows the evolution of the hotel from inns such as the Alma and the relationship to locality in a way that is alas so sadly missing from the megaliths that line the roads in Dubai.

Obviously I have a kind of mental check-list to work down, answers to which I find in some surprising places, such as leaders in technical innovation being Premier Inn with their approach to using technology epitomised by Burgess Hill. I have looked at hotels that reflect a history such as the high Victorian treatment in the Polish Noma Residences. In line with this I have always wanted to look at a castle conversion. Swinton Park is the closest I have managed to get to a castle yet.

Swinton Park Hotel & Spa

The building itself dates back to the sevententh century, indeed it may even date back further with the oldest bit of the current building dating from the reign of Henry VIIIth I’m told. I’ve looked at older (the Churston Court in Devon being built around a long barn reputedly 9th century in date) but none with a tradition of being a fortified place, so when offered the opportunity to stay at Swinton Park I jumped at the chance.

Owned by the same family for many centuries it is only in the 21st century that the decision was made to convert what had become an over-large expensive-to-maintain country house into an hotel operation. It is still a work in progress as a guided tour around the parts of the estate not yet put to use showed, but what a great job is being done in changing the rôle and use of the many remaining out buildings.

The evolution of the building into an hotel follows a long evolution into a large country house from the original fortified manor that it probably was when built in 1690’s England. The existing gothic version dates back to the 1760’s with additions continuing through into the nineteenth century, so todays adaptive reuse continues a long cycle of reinvention by the owners past and present.

Swinton Park Hotel & Spa

The current owners are being sensitive to the existing building as would be expected from a couple for whom this house is their family history at least in part. After a brief interregnum when it was used as a college, the house returned to family ownership and the refurbishment commenced at the turn of this century, the sixth for the property.

One of the attractions of older buildings is the amount of fine detail that is in them, and this one is no exception. With wonderful joinery (mill work to US readers) and some stunning plasterwork the inheritance enhances the generally large spaces. Included in this are two large safes now used for keeping guns and wine under lock and key. Guns because the hotel continues county activities in the form of shooting, hawking etc., but also runs a prestigious cookery school and trains staff.

The spaces themselves are large and enable a graceful and unflustered level of service, as the relationship of the scale of public spaces to bedrooms ensures that there is plenty of room for guests. The planned addition of the new spa and further bedrooms, together with the development of the business traffic will not stress these areas, except perhaps the bar, which is a smaller but equally interesting space that apparently used to be a private museum.

Swinton Park Hotel & Spa

However the public spaces are so large that there is potential to expand the beverage operation, and the possible addition of a further bar/wine area, perhaps a more ‘cocktail lounge’ feeling area, or ‘gentleman’s club’ leather and – but then that’s for others to think through…

The pinnacle of the restored spaces is perhaps the magnificent dining room. It is a grand traditional space with a stunning plasterwork ceiling. Large windows maximise daylight and the subtle use of candles in the evenings compliment the gentle light achieved by the gold linings to the traditional chandeliers. Cornicing and timber work emphasise the quality along with a dado rail below which the decorative plasterwork in reiterated. Through the windows the deer park is visible and I was delighted to see a hedgehog snuffling its way along the edge of the lawn besides myriad bunnies at play.

Adequate for the current number of bedrooms as the planned increase comes into play some consideration may need to be given to creating further bar and dining areas. As an experienced Accor executive observed to be me recently “30 odd bedrooms is basically a mom&pop operation”.
Whilst Swinton Park is 38 bedrooms currently, plans are afoot to add more to this total along with a new spa area. There is plenty of room for this expansion without spoiling the nature of the operation but it will need some thoughtful replanning of the public spaces to service the increased demand they will generate.

Swinton Park Hotel & Spa

Among spaces currently available are a second guest lounge and the library, currently used as a function room. Whilst the GM regrets the fact that the original library shelves have gone, and they must have been spectacular in a house of this period, what remains is in itself a stunning space. High clings and huge windows flood it with daylight and fireplace and plasterwork reflect the quality to be seen in the other rooms.

The quality of plasterwork continues through the corridor spaces, the culmination of which is perhaps the grand staircase that links the floor. Although there is a lift, it is so much more fun to reach the bedroom via this grand staircase, complete with reminders of bygone days. One the wall are hung portraits of past family members, and the oak of the banister rail and stair treads is offset by a rich red carpet and red walls against which the plasterwork looks even more stunning .

Bedroom corridors off the staircase are short and additional bedrooms are being created out of rooms on these wings, the latest the Bradford room, containing subtle Asian influences. Rooms themselves are large with large luxurious bathrooms generally having soaking tubs and walk-in showers. Views from the rooms are of course of the deer park — the estate has over 20,000 acres of land with rambler paths and walks.

Swinton Park Hotel & Spa

All bedrooms are individually designed, no two alike. However all share the same generous use of space. At a time when many UK urban up market hotels are shrinking their bedroom sizes to fit more in it is delightful to find a traditional country house hotel that is going out of its way to offer the last true luxury in our crowded world – space to swing your cat.

Traditional values dominate here – traditional values of service, and hospitality. Traditional interiors are an enormously variable feast, but the interiors here have a classical timeless English country house appeal. It is to be hoped that these traditional values can be maintained as the property grows. Certainly some careful appraisal of the public area provision needs to go hand in hand with expansion but the building has the scope for this to be achieved whilst maintaining the quality that is inherent to the building.

As it is said, ‘they don’t make ’em like this anymore’. Certainly this is one to watch developing with interest…

Swinton Park Hotel & Spa

From a visit by Patrick Goff in August 2014
©Words and Pictures Patrick Goff

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia Italy (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

For many years my practice worked for island hotel groups, the Hugglers (see Club Hotel and Spa) and the Seymours of Jersey (see the Merton), through some very tough times for tourism on the island as it shrank from some 27,000 bedrooms to 9,000. For small islands there are many problems that affect the work of designers — limited competition between a few contractors, for example, who can carve up work between themselves and may have limited ranges of specialisation. Even supply from outside the island can put site work at the mercy of island transport links.

Transport links can also be a limiter on how guest reach hotels too. It may be there is only one airline serving the island, or a limited seat capacity restricting the ability to offer low prices or to raise tourism numbers. Jersey for example suffers from sea fogs which can restrict the ability of airlines to keep to schedules. Seat prices are high too.

Recently I was invited to look at a group of hotels on Sardinia. Interesting to see the island listed as having its own separatist movement wanting to take it back independently of Italy into being once again the Kingdom of Sardinia. Somehow for these separatist movements they are quite happy to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia
Like Seymour’s who only operate on Jersey (Hugglers also operate the Apollo in England), Delphina only operates on the island, the owners being a construction group with a great eye for locations and the ability to move quickly to exploit them once found. Northern Sardinia is partly the Costa Smeralda. The hotels currently operate seasonally. You might think this is due to the weather, closing in winter being a sensible option, but no hotelier likes losing quality staff during a closure. No this is down to the fact that the airlines only operate the routes to the local airport seasonally.

Sometimes I wonder why Islands don’t operate their own airlines or ferry services rather than leaving themselves at the mercy of offshore operators — I guess the desire for independence doesn’t run to spending their own money. Delphina operates eight four and five star hotels in the north of Sardinia, beautifully located overlooking the coastline with its secret beaches and rocky coves, on the edge of a marine reserve that is a divers delight, and almost a part of the Costa Smeralda itself.

Sardinia has a pink granite rock a little like Jersey’s but unlike Jersey it is washed by warm seas with very little tidal rise and fall, allowing the permanent beach provision of umbrellas, sunbathing platforms, bars etc, unthreatened most of the year by the sea itself. The rock creates little almost private coves along the shore each with a small sandy beach slipping into a warm emerald sea. In addition the absence of threat from the sea itself enables a relaxed style of both townscape and hotel design that can rarely be found in the UK, enhanced by glorious riots of colour from oleander and bougainvillea.

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia
In Sardinia the towns also build right to the sea, unlike England where they hide behind the beach defences and sea walls our up to 15 metre high tides demand, even before we talk of 14 metre high Atlantic or 20 metre North Sea waves. In Sardinia current legislation prevents any building close to the shore line but many hotels and towns go to the water’s edge as they pre-date this law and enjoy the barely half a metre rise and fall rhythm of the Mediterranean. With local roots and local pride Delphina makes the most of this heritage in its hotels. It uses local produce and local cuisine in its restaurants and emphasises its link with the sea by operating seawater Thalasso Spas in 6 of the hotels.The use of local stone builds (literally) the relationship with the local landscape.

Buildings are low rise and follow the contours, the architect and planners having a good eye for how to integrate the resort with the landscape, curving around both pools and the sandy beaches the small coves provide along the property waterfront. Rooms have balconies with sea views and paths through the oleander and bougainvillea lead guest via pools with waterfalls to the beach bars and sunloungers that fringe the beaches. In keeping with the architecture the interior design follows local tradition — painted walls, tiled floors, covered balconies and windows that open to let sea breezes cool and ventilate. Even in the summer heat the rooms feel cool and the vernacular of stone, thick walls, shuttered (and well shaded) windows create rooms that even though they have air conditioning are still cool without it on.

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia
More surprising then is the fact that there is little sign of solar power being deployed given the endless days of sunlight. Washrooms are generously sized and few have baths — again driven by attitudes to water conservation and the quick shower taken after sea bathing. Baths are appropriate where soaking out the stress of a day is needed, but here holiday makers might shower two or three times a day so water conservation becomes a major consideration. For families with small children rooms with baths are available providing notice is given on booking.

This is an hotel without corridors in the conventional sense since all access is along paths that follow the contour lines, each bedroom unit being accessed via its own ‘front door’ off a ‘street’. Balconies look out to sea across gardens planted profusely with oleander and bougainvillea, the gorgeous colours enhanced by the strong Mediterranean sunlight.

In contrast the colours painted on the bedroom walls as faded blushes and blues, gently harmonising with the landscape and the fabrics. Schemes might at first glance seem bland but in a landscape of strong brilliant sunlight and shadow they are restful and calming, making rooms a retreat from the bright turquoise of the sea and the hard light of the sun. The timber used is traditional chestnut, used both for the traditional form furniture and also for the structural timbers that provide the framework for the planting that shades the walkways.

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia
Use of local materials continues in the way in which the signage is controlled. Using outcrops of stone signage is either painted or incised into the local rock/boulders, integrating signage neatly into the landscape.

Running down from the Reception desk is the line of pools terminating on the beach. The chain of water provides a heart to the hotels, and each major point has its own restaurant and along the way the spa hides itself, with treatment rooms having delightful porthole windows that allow light in from beneath the water of the pools, filling them with a calming aquamarine dappling and restful for those having massage treatments.

Tucked away off a pathway the spa is ‘buried’ within the rock, merging into the same contour following building line adopted by the bedrooms. Even seen from the sea the development is skilfully enveloped by the landscape, and for the spa the use of treatment rooms underneath the level of the pools furthers this process of incorporation. The pools themselves are enlivened with water falls and spa areas, some linked as seawater treatment areas (Thalasso), some there for pleasure for those who prefer a pool to the beautifully warm crystal clear Mediterranean that laps tidelessly onto the beach (sigh)…

Hotel Marinedda, Sardinia
The walks meander through the gardens, sometimes passing rooms where balconies are furnished not just with loungers or tables and chairs but also with thoughtful rails for drying beach towels and costumes, where an evening beer can be – oh stop, enough! Writing this on a cool autumn evening under grey English skies this is torture…

Rooms have Wi-Fi and Sky TV, which has to compete with sunsets and birdsong and the inevitable noise of cicadas. Mr Hilton said location, location, location. Well Mr Hilton, say to that Sardinia, Sardinia, Sardinia. If you like swimming in a crystal clear sea, marine parks, sun and sand then this hotel facilitates that enjoyment. Skilfully planned, pleasantly serviced, generously sized it is well enough designed to slip gracefully into the background, not trying (as so many gauche designs do) to compete with experience of the holiday maker.

Here the memories will be of sunsets and the environment, the sea and sky, of bougainvillea. When asked the reply would be “the hotel – yeah- it was OK”. Impressing with aggressive design is not what its about here. Instead it is well designed to complement the holiday experience, not compete with it. Here the designers ego is subordinated to the hotel guest’s pleasure.

Which is exactly as it should be.

©All words and Pictures Patrick Goff 2014

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Going green means many things to many people, from adding solar power panels to a roof to a through total reworking of energy use. In our sophisticated cities, going green generally has to be driven by financial return, and the effort involved focusses on energy use. Premier Inn are an excellent example of a group trying to build carbon neutral hotels at no higher cost than any other new build, and who look for a return on investment of around the 7% mark — something that could not be achieved in early years of solar panels, hence many of their properties only now have them added, whilst recycling of heat, and other energy saving measure had previously been adopted.

In some cases however a totally different approach is taken. In Namibia the Damaraland Lodge impressed me by the use of local materials and the ability to remove the hotel, leaving virtually no trace, if the market no longer supported it. In part this was driven by the location in a wilderness where there were no mains services. I was told the only delivery to site was 30,000 empty sand bags, everything else in construction being generated locally. Where the attraction for tourists is the environment, then it makes sense for the hotel operator to tread softly upon the earth or risk damaging that which attracts the guest in the first place. As wilderness decreases so preserving it for tourism becomes an issue.

Teniqua Treetops falls into the category of an environmentally sensitive property focused on sustainability whilst bringing the guest into the wildlife environment too, but here the mix is complicated by the owner’s self-build approach. With just 8 suites built in the treetops of native forest in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains, these rooms are the ultimate in recycling, with, for example, many of the windows and doors being recycled from salvage yards. This ecologically sensitive approach provides comfortable suites providing self-catering hideaways just off the popular Garden Route in South Africa.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa
In truth this kind of hospitality resort has laid the foundation of what has become known in the UK as ‘glamping’ – glamour camping. Not quite tents these rooms none-the-less make good use of camping antecedents. Built on the steeply raking slopes of the Karatara river valley these rooms are isolated from each other, and but for the car port outside, could almost be isolated from the 21st century too, except that despite their self-build nature the solar power and water heating panels are sophisticated enough to cater for most of the needs of guest. Air conditioning and heating is however driven off a backup mains electricity supply so creature comfort is catered for in a way any other form of ‘glamping’ would not be able to do.

Creature comforts are catered for in other ways that mark this as an hotel — for example rooms are serviced daily by housekeepers who access on four wheel drive bikes. The environmentally friendly nature is essential given the build is on the edge of the river valley and away from traditional mains services such as water and sewerage. Water is supplied from rainwater capture, and this is one of the areas of the world with the cleanest air, so the rainwater is drinkable, although most guests bring their drinking water in bottle form.

The hot water supply is adequately supplied in this environment by the solar panels but just in case there is a bottle gas back up, which also provides the gas for the kitchen area. If there is a downside here it is the non flushing soil toilets. A strong arm is needed to work the levers that expel the ordure, and the lack of smell is proof of their functional effectiveness. The mix is allowed to age and emptied to be returned to the land as fertiliser, but despite this there is still an initial ‘yuk’ factor.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa

All these practical considerations fade into the background when standing looking out at the view. The ‘old mans’ beard’ fronds of lichen Usnea on the trees is very sensitive to pollution and here grows to metres long showing how pure the air is. The forest below the rooms is one of the last remnants of native South African fynbos forest. This is one of the first hotels where there is a list of reasons not to come on the booking site, starting with the observation: * If you are someone who has phobias about flora or fauna: trees, plants, birds, wild animals, insects, snakes, butterflies, moths, tame animals…don’t come.
* We won’t, don’t, can’t fumigate the forest…so, if you would rather be in a sterile environment…don’t come.

In the past guest have also left because of the lack of means for obscuring the views from the bathrooms. As there is no way anyone can look in not reflections in glass, no passers-by in streets, none except possibly a passing sea bird to see you shower this is an hotel where you can revel in the freedom an individually isolated room can provide. During our stay the only intrusive strangers were the occasional spider, the proximity of bird life and the inquisitiveness of the hotel cat (Marlene), who insisted on accompanying walks through the forest.

The bedrooms are secure, with the additional safety of insect nets and inner canvas liners that can be zipped closed at night. During the day the large balconies allow many hours of sun drenched contemplation of the treetops, bird watching and listening to the animal noises from the forest below, tuning in to the natural world. This form of retreat is rare and to be treasured. Yet there is also a social area to this property, complete with a small conference facility, and a pool area for those for whom company of a significant other is not enough. Imaginative recycling throughout the property is marked by the outdoor furniture (one of the owners is an engineer)and the creation of play areas provides and energy consuming area for offspring.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa
There is a communal braaii area for those who want to indulge the manic obsession South Africans have with burning everything over wood fires, or as a relief from self catering in the individual kitchens within each room. There is a small shop on site but it is an easy drive over deserted roads to go shopping for those gorgeous and cheap South African wines if you didn’t bring along enough in the first place. With any installation in the treetops the problems of how to supply water and take away waste are major concerns. Electricity whether generated via solar or the national grid is relatively simple via a thin(ish) cable. Water and sewage pipes tend to be both bulky and need long trenches to make the provision.

here rainwater provides a large part of the answer and notices in the bathroom, which despite the limitations boast both shower and bath tub, push the lesson home saying showers are for one, baths for two (and may be helps with the popularity with honeymooners…). Guest are invited every time they turn on a tap to choose between the solar heated and gas heated water. At no stage did the hot water supply seem inadequate even on dull days, when the solar heating was selected.

Occasionally the water colour will be somewhat ‘cola-coloured’ as the hotel describes it, because of the tanin that comes in water supply from the forest area, as water or bathing is pumped up from the river below. Rainwater however is very pure and quite drinkable.Both river and rain water have been tested and are potable. The brown colour could be removed from the river water with flocculation (chemicals) and lots of energy and waste (completed flocculent). The operation knows this would not be environmentally justifiable…

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa

Sewerage is a less tractable problem and here the latest dry toilet systems are used to safely and efficiently process human waste without threatening the sensitive Karatara catchment area; septic tanks are used to avoid damage to the underlying root bed of the forest floor and avoid polluting a water course. This means each time the toilet is used, a scattering of forest leaf fall is added and the lid lifted and dropped to power a spiral screw which removes the waste into the septic tank. This is not a silent forest, the sound of birds and wildlife ample tribute to the care and concern the owners have taken to protect what is, after all, their major asset. Here walks may give sightings of caracal (a form of wild cat) or even possibly leopard, Small buck and monkeys and copious bird-life provide a nature lovers idyll.

This is not a destination for those who love cities and night-life epitomised by the pub and nightclub. This is somewhere to feel the soul of the earth, to sit in contemplation watching a sunset, to be at one with the world. Such places are rare, and need to be treasured.

© Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in March 2014

Centro Al Manhal, Abu Dhabi UAE

Centro Al Manhal, Abu Dhabi UAE (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

When I stayed at the Shangri-La in Dubai I had no doubts about what I would be looking at. The review was specifically so that I could have a look at an example of a Shangri-La hotel in advance of the Shard opening in London. The Rotana Centro Al Manhal Abu Dhabi, was, besides being quite a mouthful as a name, quite an unknown quantity, as well as an unknown quality. It fitted within my current concern about the poor standards of many hotels in the UK in comparison with what is being developed abroad. Here is a new group setting its standards for me to look at, and to see that this, a three star operation, is at a level that fully justifies my observations in my article about the challenges faced by UK hotel standards.

Many designers will say, as will many hoteliers, “so what, this is no threat to UK hotels”. This is not a belief I share. In the 1960’s we queued in UK hotels to share a bathroom, and seemingly saw nothing wrong with it. Right into the 1990’s my design practice made its bread and butter creating en-suite bathrooms in British hotels that had not previously had them. That’s right, that work continued into the mid 1990’s, as the UK hotel market sought to recover from the impact of British holidays makers preferring to go abroad rather than suffer poor hotel standards at home.

Centro Al Manhal, Abu Dhabi UAE

Now the accountants who control so much of UK hotel development and refurbishment are pushing hotels room sizes smaller, ignoring the standards that Brits experience abroad, and the experience foreign tourists have in their home markets. Once more UK hotels are falling slowly and inexorably behind their foreign counterparts, relying on the continued growth of UK tourism to fill rooms – London average occupancy rated in excess of 92% and regional rates over 70% almost guarantee the returns for investors, with little future vision required.

How long will the tourist market be sustained if UK is seen to be old fashioned and behind the times in the standard of its hotel accommodation? With 10% of the economy now relying on tourism, we need to look hard at what we are doing here, or see a hotel and tourism decline as marked as the decline of the seaside resorts of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with similar economic impact.

Centro Al Manhal, Abu Dhabi UAE

When a new 5 star can be created in London with rooms 27m2 whilst overseas counterparts go to 44m2, and the London hotels charges some of the highest global rates too, should we then expect the guests will surely eventually vote with their feet? If so then we all lose. There is nothing wrong with small rooms per se, as Citizen M and others have shown, but it depends on client profiling and for 4 and 5 star size does matter. However here it is the size of three star rooms that throws down the challenge, moulding expectations for travellers may be returning to the UK.

This three star shows how definitions are changing. For a start it has valet parking, which is apparently a legal requirement in Abu Dhabi hotels. Given that access to the car park is under the hotel via a car lift this provides an additional level of security for those arriving by car.
Rotana is a fasts growing operator with over 70 properties in 11 countries, although most properties are through the UAE. As Marriott are finding with their African portfolio of 108 Protea, hotels standard are good and the quality and size of provision, particularly at 3 star level challenges the conception of 3 star service and operation, paralleling the developments in the UK. Here in Abu Dhabi though the change is even more marked, with a large lobby, and high quality services.

Centro Al Manhal, Abu Dhabi UAE

Other facilities not usually found in European 3 star hotels include 24 food service through the hotel’s bistro, room service, a bar, a choice of dining options including a high quality restaurant operation, a roof top swimming pool, manned and with waiter service, meeting rooms and a small gym. Throughout this modern building finishes are of high quality, and the spaces, including the 229 32m2 bedrooms, are well designed, contemporary and beautifully detailed. Bedrooms include the usual mix of twins and doubles with zip-link beds used throughout to maximise flexibility. Some rooms interconnect, and there is a balance between shower only and bath rooms, giving choice to the incoming guest.

A good sized work desk is enhanced by the addition of some free WiFi, which is hi speed too. This is a focussed business hotel but it was evident that it was popular with tourists wanting to be based in central Abu Dhabi. Adjacent is the Al Wadha mall and behind is the national football stadium, so this friendly hotels also has an attraction for other than the business person.

Centro Al Manhal, Abu Dhabi UAE

A new build, as are most of Rotana’s hotels, the hotel is functionally well designed, elegant and stylish. Staff are very well trained, friendly and efficient. The groups is locally owned and financed and has had rapid expansion. Their intent is to continue to expand as a management group and they are launching a campaign to increase awareness amongst British travellers, as currently only 19% of their guests are from the UK.

From 2 properties in 1993 to over 85 by 2012 in 26 countries the group continues to expand the properties under management through its four brands. The stated intention is to achieve growth through Eastern Europe, the Mid-East and Africa. Offering design and concept planning the group sets a standard that unfortunately is well above many of their equivalents in the UK, where complacency and cost are deciding factors frequently overruling design and guest comfort as considerations.

All words and pictures © Patrick Goff. From a stay in March 2014

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Now owned since 1998 by Elite Hotels, enough time has passed since the ownership of De Vere to be able to see the image the new owners are trying to build. Traditionally the market for the Grand has been the older guest, and luxury will continue to appeal primarily to this sector rather than cash-strapped families or the youth market. The over 60’s are the most expanding population sector and have the highest level of disposable income. Their demands are evolving as time passes,they take multiple holidays and unlike previous generations today’s pensioner has experience of plenty of travel abroad and consequently have higher expectations of UK hotels than previous generations.

Buildings of the age and grandeur of the Grand have many advantages and numerous disadvantages. Having worked as interior designer on similar buildings with similar problems I am aware of the balancing act owners have to make in spending on the property. The demands of the fabric can overwhelm and a seafront location like this is doubly demanding on the integrity of the building fabric.

Overall owners need a vision and a design strategy to support that vision. The Grand deserves ambition to keep it from further decline from its pre-war glory days, with the implications for revenue that this would carry. The building itself is glorious, with huge columns and magnificent plasterwork throughout.Even the cast-iron radiators are miniature works of art in themselves so the bones of the building have survived wartime sequestration and post war De Vere equally.

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne
Owners have a number of options with hotels of this age and popularity. They can, as the new owners of the Stafford did, invest a major sum involving a rework of the hotel whilst it remains temporarily closed. Sensitive to the high number of repeat guests who loved the hotel, the Stafford owners nevertheless felt that to retain the 5 star rating it had enjoyed for many years, the hotel should be closed and fully refurbished. The sprawling nature of the Grand makes this unnecessary and a phased programme could be run without any loss of revenue.

Much money has apparently had to be spent on the fabric of the building so it is doubly disappointing to see the refurbishment programme is not serving the property or ownership/operation to best advantage. The opportunity is being missed to provide something of the panache that can be seen at the Steigenberger Park-Hotel, at very little extra cost over the simple rather unimaginative refurbishment currently being carried out.The hotel cries out for a level to be set for all refurbishment to work towards, a five star master plan.

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne

Any refurbishment programme needs to have an overall vision of the desired end result, and this vision should then govern every action at any place in the hotel where change is made. It is known as ‘getting all your ducks in a row’, and should ensure that every action from changing a light bulb to reflooring a bathroom moves the hotel towards the market position the management has targeted. The Grand boasts of being Britain’s only five star seaside hotel. The grandeur of the building together with it’s history befits this claim but the strategy for refurbishment needs to ensure every management action, from creating a child focussed area to re flooring bathrooms lines up with the claim.

Nor is it enough to set the standard by comparing with only UK hotels. As I said earlier many of the target market guests for this hotel will be well travelled and will have experienced five star standards in other global hotels from Thailand to Turkey, from Bali to Berlin even if the hotel management, designer or architect hasn’t (but probably has done). To justify the almost London prices the hotel charges the service has not only to be right operationally from the staff (which it is) but also has to hit the right level with the design.

One simple example will suffice of the lack of vision. A bathroom has been retiled and a heated floor installed. Good; but the toilet sits where the guest needs to stand to use the second of the double wash basins. The whole basin unit could have been moved along the wall to create the space to allow this to be varied.With the floor up this would have been minimal in cost but wasn’t seen by the designer (I assume). These little things are sensitive for the guest and to my eye make a clear statement as to design intent.

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne
The bones of the hotel are beautiful. It has a grace missing from more modern builds in most instances. When it was built Britain was the richest country in the world and the guests coming here had expectations of luxury standards the builder tried to match or surpass. To regain that status the current management needs to have a similar vision in everything they do. The hotel had a huge reputation. Claude Debussy stayed here with his mistress and wrote the last pieces of his symphony ‘La Mer’ here ( and his room is there, whilst the hotel has some of his hand-written music score – wow!) This glorious piece was premiered by the hotel orchestra, the same orchestra that played ‘from the Palm Court’ regularly for BBC broadcast until the programme was curtailed by WW2. Even today on the last Sunday of the month the hotel orchestra plays to a large audience served high tea with the style for which the hotel is deservedly known.

It is not difficult to find examples of hotels in Europe or Africa that have had similar problems to the Grand, and have solved them creatively with rolling refurbishment programmes that have lifted standards up to match the best globally. Example include our recently Reviewed Steigenberger Park-Hotel in Dusseldorf, or the Cellars Hohenort in Cape Town. There are other examples too if you look in our Review archive (you can use the controls to select just five star hotels to see them). Such programmes planned and rolled out without hotel closure can lift the hotel and raise the level of income/return on capital employed, reversing decades of decline, such as that the Grand has suffered since the 1930s.

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne
Having said all that, the programme is barely underway at the Grand. Some fabrics and wallpapers have been renewed but it is a herculean task turning around this mammoth hotel. What is has going for it, beside its history, is a stunning location on the sunniest section of Britain’s coast and some fine internal architecture. One of the key areas the hotel is addressing is the lighting. Slowly new lighting is being added – not in itself and easy task, but one that if using LED’s could result in a considerable saving on energy costs whilst at the same time starting to create some visual excitement within dauntingly large spaces.

Many resort hotels now market themselves as spa destinations. There is plenty of potential for the Grand in this area, especially as I am told (I was unable to see it) that there is a Turkish Bath built in earlier years and closed when they became unfashionable, ready to be exploited to harness the growing concerns of city folk for healthy living. It is ironic that the seaside resort grew out of a Victorian concern for the health giving benefits of sea bathing, Whilst sea bathing now draws crowds to warmer seas (Mediterranean, Red Sea, Caribbean etc.) there is now an overwhelming concern for healthy living. With the Spa offering and great kitchens the Grand is well positioned to return to this, one of the roots of its success in another century.

Grand Hotel, Eastbourne
Bedrooms reflect those earlier years. They are large and have sea views. For walkers and joggers there are plenty of opportunities, with the National Trust’s walk to Beachy Head almost starting outside the hotel, and a good jogging trail to the Pier. Free WiFi and generous desk space enable wet afternoons to be spent in the room and service is impeccable whether ensconced in the comfortable bar areas or taking the fine dining experience in the Mirabelle restaurant.

The Grand is, as its name suggests, a grand hotel with grand spaces. Over the years it has suffered from lack of management imagination. The new group owns similar hotels (Luton Hoo and Tylney Hall, most notably). It is to be hoped that their spend on growing the group is matched by investment in bringing back to glory such wonderful architectural gems.

They don’t build them like this any more…

©Words and Picture Patrick Goff 2014. From a visit in January 2014

Steigenberger Park Hotel Dusseldorf

Steigenberger Park-Hotel, Dusseldorf (Patrick Goff)

1000 667 Daniel Fountain

It stands almost as a symbolic icon of the recovery of Germany from past disasters. Top floors burned out, requisition by occupation forces, rebuilt and now refurbished as an exemplar of luxury, the Park-Hotel Dusseldorf is massively reassuring. In a world where provincial concepts of luxury are frequently debased versions of the real thing, where local frequently means second rate and where refurbishment often equates to safe or boring, here quality standards deliver a guest experience that is in line with the hotels five star status.

Too many of my recent trips to look at hotels at this level have proved a disappointment, with ‘safe’ design delivering short term fixes to hotels that need fundamental upgrading. Whether this comes from management that is predictable or comfortable , or from clients that lack imagination and don’t see how interiors move upmarket all the time, or from designers who are cowed into delivering safe solutions is almost irrelevant. The reasons for timidity only contribute to the slow slide downmarket that typifies so much of European (especially UK) hotel stock.

Steigenberger Park Hotel Dusseldorf

The search for luxury solutions fails to lift many hotel interiors beyond the mediocre. Some of the efforts to succeed will not be to everyone’s taste but timidity in design wins no friends, nor loyalty from guests. Steigenberger has embellished its reputation for understanding luxury with the refurbishment of the Park Hotel in Dusseldorf, not just through the revamped interior design but through operationally understanding the differentiation of areas within the hotel. It also ties itself in to the cultural life of the city, not just because it is next door to the opera, but also by having an artist in residence scheme, the results of which you will see in many of the images in this Review.

Art can embellish interiors and well chosen art can help to create the identity of an hotel, creating dramatic impact in spaces that themselves may be boring, providing strong colour against which to balance the fabrics and soft furnishings. It can also be (when not lame or cheap reproductions) an investment, increasing in value over time, maybe even an investment which can fund a future refurbishment if chosen well. It can also provide wit and be a visual thematic link running through an interior scheme. Steigenberger has recognised that Art is also part of many wealth investments so tapping in to the local art market can be a way to connect with the local affluent guests a five star seeks.

The art also however tweaks a contemporary interpretation of a luxury interiors by giving it unashamedly modern images and a bright injection of colour. The art theme is carried throughout the public space, and the fine dining restaurant makes obeisance to both the visual arts and, perhaps, the art of the opera next door with its name of ‘the Artiste’. With its linked ‘Etoile’ bar this provides fine dining in the conservatory extension on one side of the hotel frontage, with the views into neighbouring parkland and over the artificial lake.

Steigenberger Park Hotel Dusseldorf

On the other side of the entrance is the ‘Steigenberger Eck’ a social bar and eatery. To call is a bistro would be to understate its quiet luxury, defined by both its remarkable linear chandelier and it external terrace. With its own street access this has a chance to become a local bar/diner with urban chic and sophistication. The history of this Steigenberger is one of royal patronage from the start, and it has played host to the cream of Dusseldorf since. The central location enhances its attraction in a quiet position within Dusseldorf, rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities.

With the red carpet on the steps and a formal but contemporary reception lobby giving access to both lifts and a staircase, the entrance is both functional and expansively welcoming. Given focus by the large chandelier and the large floral centrepiece it gives clear sight lines to staff over all the key areas, enabling both security and control to be efficiently and discreetly exercised. All the main areas – restaurants, bars etc.- are visible to the guest on entry. In bars and restaurant staff again have easy sightlines making greeting and controlling guests a simple matter. At all levels guests are always smilingly greeted and guided to tables etc., part of efficient and effective service that is not always found in a five star hotel, but appears very much a hallmark of Steigenberger.

Steigenberger Park Hotel Dusseldorf

Soft furnishings echo the past, appropriately for an historic five star. Drapes serve a dual purpose in that they provide an effective second line of insulation against the mid-European winter cold as well as the right kind of decorative ambience. Carpets also aid in insulation against both cold and sound, and the hotel boasts in its literature that it has English carpets (they are by Brintons) showing that some people at least recognise that not only is there a good utilitarian reason for carpeting but is it also a clear mark of luxury.

Timber or tile may be appropriate in more downmarket establishment such as a trattoria or a pub where resistance to spills, cigarette burns and easy cleaning are criteria, but high quality carpet creates a luxury feel underfoot and if specified correctly will certainly give a life of use as long as many engineered timber floors. Carpet in the corridors helps to keep the bedroom areas quiet too. Stair areas have seating areas at the top and the stairs are given a presence, with fire doors on hold backs so that the staircase remains open and visible, making it an attractive route for guests. Room layouts are planned so that the awkward corner areas become the suites and interconnecting rooms (see the floor plan).

As you rise through the floors the rooms become smaller as the top floor was originally laid out for the servants the wealthy brought with them. The smaller rooms are equally luxuriously finished and furnished, but now let as single rooms to reflect their smaller size. In many UK hotels these rooms would be regarded as a normal double (see the video on the last page) as they are reasonably large until compared with the standard rooms elsewhere on the floors below.

Steigenberger Park Hotel Dusseldorf

Larger rooms have separate toilet and bidet space, and again it is noticeable how many five star continental hotels still offer bidets, something missing from the mind of many UK designers, never mind a five star having both a soaking tub and a walk in shower as they frequently do outside the UK. UK five star standards seem to me to be decaying as owners and operators go for cheap solutions, whilst in the countries most of our tourist guests come from, bathroom standards in particular continue to rise with many beginning to offer his and her bathrooms (see One and Only for example), never mind just having a walk in shower and a soaking tub, bidet and a separate toilet area. Indeed in some countries now, new build regulations requite a separating toilet space from the rest of the bathroom.

Simple things are used here to raise the perception of standards to a five star level. Tiling on the bathroom floor, for example, is chosen for dramatic effect, with inlaid tile patterns mimicking gold and mother of pearl adding to the perception of luxury. It is a simple device that need not cost a great deal more than a plain or marble effect tile, but shifts guest perception of the quality.

As with so many things in the luxury market it is how perceptions are moulded rather than a different level of reality that counts. Throughout the hotel, from corridors to major public spaces, notable is the careful control and use of lighting (much supplied by Chelsom Ltd). Often when the designer departs the hotel has one light switch position, ‘on’, but not here. Here lighting is gradated and mixed with wall and ceiling light balanced by candles for romantic effect.

Steigenberger Park Hotel Dusseldorf

Similarly in the bedrooms lighting is controllable from the desk and the bedhead, making setting the level for the task in hand easy. Rooms all have sensibly designed desk and free WiFi makes working easy, along with the generous provision of sockets. (A tip by the way – I carry an extension board of UK sockets that plugs in with the local plug hardwired on the lead. With cameras, phones, laptop etc. to charge having 4 or five UK sockets on one cable makes life easier than carrying an large number of adaptors, or forming a queue).

Design of the bedrooms is well done. With traditional dark wood and brass casegoods it is likely that the 2012 refurbishment was limited to the decorative items and soft furnishings, but the rooms have been successfully given a contemporary feel and are very comfortable both physically and visually. Indeed the whole hotel is both comfortable and contemporary. It has a classical feel yet with contemporary art and fabrics, and good lighting, it feels modern, not like a hotel stuck in a past and that in 1902 was frequented by Royalty.

As an example of the quality of the Steigenberger Group it was well chosen. The group currently has 48 hotels in Germany but with new CEO Puneet Chhatwal coming in from Rezidor where he was part of Kurt Ritter’s team that grew that group from a dozen hotels to over 600,Steigenberger are poised to grow quickly, targeting EMEA. Somebody mentioned 1,000 hotels – well I wouldn’t disbelieve that. As Chhatwal said, they aim to be the BMW of the hotel world. If the Park Hotel Dusseldorf is anything to go by, the Bentley might be a better parallel. Mind you that brand is owned by BMW isn’t it…

From a visit in December 2013 ©Words and Pictures Patrick Goff 2014

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa, Every morning commuter trains bring civil servants in to work, in a town with tree shaded streets and plenty of historically interesting buildings, including the home of Paul Kruger, once one of the leaders of the Boer tribe. Indeed Boer history has been surprisingly allowed to remain as a dominant tourist feature in this town with the monument to the Boer trekkers towering above the city on one side, whilst the Union Buildings (parliament building) dominates the central area.

Herbert Baker is one of those streets seen in many capital cities, where large mansions sit in their own grounds isolated from the daily hubbub of the city. As usual in South Africa each is surrounded by an electric fence on top of a high wall. In these exclusive grounds now nestles one of a number of small boutique properties supplementing the limited hotel offerings in Pretoria from the likes of Sheraton.

In bustling South Africa the absence of the chain hotel groups so common throughout the rest of the world is noticeable. One has to question why these predominantly European or US led chains are so blind to markets such as this, with growth economically over 7% and tourism growth higher. Tourism growth is at 17% in neighbouring Tanzania for example, where ministers have aggressively sold their countries offering in particular to the US market.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
The news that Marriott are buying South African operator Protea, who have over 100 properties throughout Africa is good news for the continent and for the Protea Group home market of South Africa in particular (the protea being south Africa’s national flower). Hopefully I will be able to report on a Protea in South Africa later in the year. After Hilton taking over the Hilton Cape Town last year this news is an injection of quality that the mass market needs throughout the continent. Whilst there are plenty of home grown quality hotels such as the Cape Grace or Bushmans Kloof for example the lack of depth a major chain would bring is noticeable, especially in the burgeoning budget sector.

Much of the gap in quality in mid-level hotels has been filled by high end boutique B&B’s or small boutique hotels style properties like the Robertson Small Hotel. Set in a large garden on the border of a reserve on the edge of Pretoria, the desire of the owners of 131 Herbet Baker for this to be seen as a five star operation is torpedoed by poor management exemplified by a casual attitude to serving what is on the menu. Unannounced ingredients on a plate may surprise but do not allow for allergies, likes or dislikes on the part of the guest, they just make life easy for the kitchen. Menus are typed on the computer so it is easy to present them to show what has been bought fresh from the market that day – advertising dishes that are no longer available is unforgiveable.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
Management has been successful in building a local following for the property, a difficult task in South Africa despite the growth of local internal tourism and business markets. Building relationships across social divides that still exist like chasms in South Africa is difficult. This has been managed and achieved successfully by the owners, but service standards also need the same focus along with training.

The hotel interiors are stylish, let down by a little over elaboration in the decor, sometimes less can truly be more. However the results are comfortable, and the hotel makes the most of a difficult plan. The original layout of the dining room cut across a bedroom access route, and the revised positioning gives it the benefit of the views across Pretoria. The difficulty of the new arrangement is the waiting staff then have a flight of stairs and reception to navigate between diners and kitchen.

A sharp maitre d’ would benefit service levels, perhaps something that could be doubled up with the bar and wine service. The dining space shares the room with the bar, both treading an uneasy line as the property with only 8 rooms and an apartment doesn’t fill the spaces busily – difficult to see a ‘passing trade’ although there were some outside diners during our stay. There could perhaps be more definition between the two areas, perhaps even a physical redefinition, making more of the fireplace to create a snug bar feel at one end. Enclosing the space for dining, and narrowing space between the dining tables would make it feel a little busier, more intimate.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
The large space with windows opening to an outside dining terrace (down more steps) may be delightfully cool in the hot summer months but feels a little bleak in the winter, a common problem in properties optimised for the hot climate that prevails for many months.On the other hand adding floor to ceiling window doors with a balcony would considerably enhance the space in both seasons. Originally the dining room had the colonnaded terrace as part of the dining experience and having dined on the similar pool terrace at Bushmans Kloof it is possible to see how attractive this could be. In summer I would imagine this space is used for table and chairs off what is now the the lounge making the pool area a more social space.

Even in the winter this area is a sun trap and more could be made of it, as it is attractive and secluded.

All these spaces are a good size for the nature of the property and the number of bedrooms. They are supplemented by the large outside garden terrace area with its extensive view across Pretoria, enabling small functions to be accommodated too. The luxury of having outside terraces and large spaces is a major advantage to the hotel, and carries through into the bedrooms too.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
There is also a room available for private functions and meetings with its own sheltered courtyard suitable for coffee breaks etc. Taken with the terrace this enables the property to host small receptions or weddings etc. The bedrooms are large and luxuriously fitted out, and the bathrooms too are generously sized with soaking tubs and walk in showers, all fitted with a local stone. Some bedrooms have their own terraces looking across the skyline of Pretoria, whilst others open on to the internal quadrangle housing the pool.

Bedroom design has been thoughtful with socket plates carrying different types of plugs (US, European, South Arican & British) making keeping equipment charged easy. The is free WiFi too, bottled water and a humidifier alongside the airconditioning. French windows give onto terraces in most bedrooms, and the styling is typically European in feel.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
Rooms have individual air conditioning and bathroom have the luxury of underfloor heating. Humidifiers are added for additional guest comfort.
131 Herbet Baker is a very attractive boutique that has considerable potential to offer more. The major issue is the restaurant layout which has been changed but still needs tweaking to provide maximum benefit. The kitchen offering also needs resolving – mainly simply through much sharper management.

Almost a ‘country house’ property within Pretoria the owners have worked hard to create their boutique. If you are planning a stay in the Johannesburg area then this property may fit your needs. For those who worry about their safety in South Africa, I believe after my numerous visits that for someone who lived in Camberwell the dangers here are no greater than in many big cities like London, New York,or the banlieues of Paris. Be streetwise and take advice from your hosts and you will be rewarded with a sense of history, stunning landscapes and fantastic bird and wildlife in what is becoming one of the world’s best tourist destinations.

©Words and pictures Patrick Goff 2014. From a visit in May 2013

ibis, Brighton

ibis, Brighton (Patrick Goff)

1000 726 Daniel Fountain

Budget hotels have flourished in recession. Not only will business people trade down, but the ‘bang per buck’ element has become exaggerated as new budget hotels continue to come on stream whilst established hotels postpone refurbishment, waiting to see revenues grow again. Indeed many poor four stars, used to competing with similar establishments through price and the service they offer have become victims of this policy on both fronts. As an hotelier said, “when you drop your price it is akin to dropping your knickers to be popular – once down it is very difficult to get them up again”. Not only is raising prices again difficult but the level of service provided by budget chains like Premier inn, Campanile or Ibis has improved, in part due to ‘facilities creep’ and in part in response to their growing popularity and changing customer profile.

The Ibis Brighton City Centre is a prime example of this change. The new hotel has, says manager Dominic Sauls, been the subject of intense scrutiny by Brighton’s 4 star hotels and has already resulted in at least one bringing forward a refurbishment programme by two years. Brighton hotels are notorious for being shabby, and their financial management has been poor. After the previous recession one chain put 14 hotels on the market, including Brighton hotels, as too far gone to be refurbished (see the transformation on one wrought by new owners in Basingstoke’s Apollo) and after this latest collapse by the economy it is the Grand on Brighton’s seafront, badly served over the years by its owners, that has been put on the sale block.

The replacement of a somewhat seedy casino by the station with the new build Ibis was an opportunity that has been seized with vigour. Whilst the bedroom format (of which more later) is Ibis standard the ground floor public areas are not only proving a successful functioning design, but the operational management is also infusing them with some touches of the eccentricity that has characterised bawdy Brighton since the Prince Regent’s day.

ibis, Brighton

The location is a fifteen minute walk from the sea front but only a few strides from the magnificent glass roofed terminus that is Brighton station. Behind the hotel is the thriving arts and crafts driven area that the North Laines has become, its workers terraced houses and small shops creating a different kind of community to that of the older original Lanes and Georgian terraces and squares of the Brighton along the sea front. Brighton is a University town with a very large student population (the editor did his postgraduate studies here in the old art college) and the colleges drive occupancy along with the business community, as parents come to check up on or bail out their offspring studying here.

The major innovation for the Ibis branding is the introduction of an all-day bistro. Starting with the presentation of the full ‘English’ at breakfast as well as offering food and coffee all day alongside a bar service. This follows other of the budget brands in growing a food offering in addition to their previously bed only offer. This ‘facilities creep’ is the traditional slide up market and other hotels such as Yotel, Tune or Bloc hotels will slide in underneath by offering just a bedroom without any trimmings. Travelodge started a budget revolution in the UK by tacking bedrooms on to a chain of roadside eateries, the Happy Eaters, and Premier Inn separately grew out of Whitbread’s beer and food enterprises so it is not surprising to see other chains developing food services too.

ibis, Brighton

The Ibis in Brighton uses technology to enhance both the service and the guest experience. Electronic keys guard lift access, and electronic signage at reception allows management to tune and alter, for example, rate information almost at will. Thus if there is plenty of space rooms can be discounted but once break even has been reached prices can be altered, much as airlines make discount seat sales of a few seats on the plane and sell the rest at an increased and full fare mark-up.

The bistro area is simple and functional and despite its higher rate over surrounding ‘greasy spoon’ restaurants, it is also popular. In part this is due to the endless coffee supply and decnet food. The bar too was busy during my stay. Design of both areas enables service and cleaning to be done simply and easily by few staff, and the colour is bright and cheerful, using the ibis ‘house red’ colouring. Roller shutters conceal coffee machines etc, whilst the bar is a simple extension of the reception counter.

ibis, Brighton

Individual style touches relieve the strict functionality and the use of colour breaks up the space. There are small idiosyncratically designed stool at the bar tables for example, whilst large candle holders light the entrance door lobby. Local art is also being introduced in this area to further help both links with the surrounding community and the individuality of the unit.

ibis, Brighton

Bedrooms are always the most important area of an hotel, unless you are a party spot, where guests don’t so much sleep as collapse unconscious. The Ibis chain has recognised the competition for a good bed and has invested in new ‘Sweet Bed’ beds with thick comfort enhancing mattress toppers on each. The rooms are effectively soundproofed (except when some muppet doesn’t quite shut the window properly) so a good nights sleep is part of the experience although the chain stops short of the guarantee offered by Premier Inn. Premier Inn boasts it has the best beds (by Directory company Hypnos, the Queens bed makers) but the new beds at Ibis seem to be a match for them.

Room design amongst budget hotels has always been pared down to offer all the facilities needed by a guest for as small an installation cost as possible. Preformed units including podded bathrooms, take advantage of offsite manufacture and are just dropped into place. However here the chain has a number of rooms with a bathroom that is a site build, and they are larger than the standard podded unit. So much so that a four star chain providing shower rooms only will find itself with a cheaper competitor at a lower star rating offering a bathroom as good as theirs. In my view the bathroom is an area where competitive edge is being thrown away by hotel developers seeking ever cheaper installations.

ibis, Brighton

If the top luxury hotels are increasingly moving to his and her bathrooms in their offering why do mid-range operators think they can get away with shower only? It is this blindness to the preference of families and the 30% of guest surveyed who state categorically a preference for a bath that should enable four star hotels to differentiate themselves from the budget competition. When even in the budget market hotel groups offer baths as well as showers then the mid -range hotels in competing not just on service but on price too. The star rating authorities (an increasing irrelevance to hotels) are also ensnared in this web by approving five star hotels with shower only offerings.

It is not surprising in this scenario that the manager here has seen executives from his local competition checking out the offer. With a good location and a product that is markedly improved, as HotelDesigns saw in the Accor Blackfriars new builds, this Ibis poses a significant challenge as a new entrant into the Brighton hotel scene.

From a visit by Patrick Goff in November 2013. All images and words are ©Copyright HotelDesigns 2013

Hotel Zetta, San Francisco

Hotel Zetta, San Francisco (Patrick Goff)

900 548 Daniel Fountain

The building is an existing 116 bedroom hotel in San Francisco, built in 1913. It had been recently purchased by Pebblebrook Hotel Trust and the new ownership group’s directive was to convert the asset from a upper mid -level product to a upper–luxury product that would be attractive to the area’s dynamic ‘Tech Market’ who focussed on Facebook, Zynga and Twitter. The designers were to create a hotel that would cater to the unique tastes, needs and casual lifestyle of a successful ‘Tech Geek’.

To be operated by the Viceroy Hotels Group, the hotel needed to be socially engaging at a very high level. The designers were asked to provide an environment that would offer layers of wit and spontaneity, providing a warm inviting and luxurious environment. Art, technology and sustainability needed to be part of the hotels core DNA. the hotel was to have that boutique personal, individualistic, entertaining and ‘West Coast’ casual ambience. It should be the place for the target audience to go after work to plug in and hangout.

Working hand in hand with the client, Dawson Design Associates began exploring different ways to create the energy and attitude that would both capture and reflect San Francisco’s diversity and energy, and the “work hard, play hard” of the ‘Tech Geek’ who stays connected 24/7. Designed for innovators and artists, it needed the creation of a luxury venue that captured the spirit, needs and attitude of a demographic mostly comprised of the ‘Millennial Generation’ but a venue that would still attract people of all ages with independent, progressive and creative personalities.

Hotel Zetta, San Francisco
The entry level lobby is the social hub with its centralised bar. Guests can use it for impromptu meetings or hanging out with friends. The ambience is relaxed, enabling spontaneity. A two-story art piece designed as a “Plinko game” vertically ties the lobby and the overhanging mezzanine ‘Playroom’ together. Guests are drawn into the gaming spirit as the ball drops from the Playroom above and works its way down the lobby wall into points bins located besides the lobby bar. With a generation of ‘gamers’ the interactive and playful energy of the ‘game’ immediately breaks the ice and creates a fun and dynamic atmosphere. Guests can become playfully active participants in the lobby experience.

Art is integral to the identity of the hotel and as a part of the experience plays a significant rôle in how the hotel feels. One of the challenges was to find fresh and innovative ways to seamlessly fuse play zones and work zones within the lobby experience. Sustainability and re-purposing/ recycling were to be another core value. Fusing art and sustainability, in a natural, personalized and thus meaningful manner became the goal. Sustainable materials are used throughout the hotel, paired with dynamic and engaging art made from re-purposed ‘ junk’, that celebrated the ideas of recycling and reuse in an entertaining and surprising manner.

Hotel Zetta, San Francisco
Chandeliers are made from 1200 pairs of recycled eyeglasses while yet another is made from broken pieces of Murano glass chandeliers pulled from the waste bin. The lobby dog greeting newly arriving guests, is a life sized Great Dane made from old forks, tools and bolts. The art wall behind the bar is a two-story glass sculpture created from old wine bottles and iron. Area rugs are a series of used Persian rugs, gathered from villages in India, Turkey & Pakistan, that have been stitched together to create a single lobby carpet. The front desk is created from recycled hardwood timber scraps. Furniture was selected for its contemporary yet comfortable styling. Many of the pieces are mid-20thcentury modern classics designed in the 60’s.

Like the City itself, there are many surprising layers into the overall hotel experience, reflecting the duality of San Francisco, a city renowned for its beauty. The amber and sepia tones created by the back lit wall on the far side of the lobby provide a warm glowing ambience to the space. Upon close inspection guests will see that is actually comprised of hundreds of ‘mug shots’ from prisoners incarcerated in Alcatraz. Al Capone is one of the many faces represented, staring out of the crowd. The original version of ‘Facebook’, each mug shot has a number, and the hotel has a coffee table book as a guide to describe the prisoner’s names and their crimes. Guests can find a face and research the crime as they enjoy a cocktail with friends.

The mezzanine Playroom continues this discovery attitude where the history of the pool table, shuffleboard, along with wall paneling comprised of recycled doors all contribute to the social conversation and playful energy of the space. As a gaming space for guests, it is both a stylish ‘man-cave’, where the latest technology is being introduced to the market from the leading software companies in the world, and a play zone to hang out and relax. A British telephone booth connects guests to the bar below, to place orders for both food and drink. By attaching the Playroom to the adjacent meeting and conference spaces with rolling galvanized warehouse doors, the Playroom can act as a dynamic pre-function space that can also be sold as a private venue for events and team building parties.

Hotel Zetta, San Francisco
Guestrooms also reflect this fusion of art, technology and sustainability. Hotel Zetta’s newly restyled 116 guestrooms, which range from 250-750 square feet, are among the most modern of San Francisco offerings. The sleek, contemporary design combined with natural elements is meant to exude the feeling of being in an urban loft. Vinyl ‘wood plank’ floorsare softly layered with a smaller scale version of the repurposed ‘patchwork’ Persian area rug, rich in character and history. Comprised of hundreds of original worn out carpets (some 40 years old), cut apart and hand stitched back together, each room has its own variation. Desks in the rooms are commercial butcher block chef tables centered below a dynamic art piece made of recycled floppy discs.

A playful digital bookcase graphic in the guestroom bathrooms display regional books on the Bay Area arts, touring, recycling, IT and even Steve Jobs. The landings of each guestroom corridor feature floor to ceiling wall murals of different ‘land fill’ shots artistically and beautiful to encourage guests to understand that the world must begin to change its perception of junk and learn to revitalize used items instead of throwing them away. It stands as a vivid reminder of our carbon footprint, playfully conveyed.

The hotel features state of the art technology throughout, including an 8′ wide panoramic video monitor in the Boardroom overlooking the lobby.

Design: Dawson Design Associates. © for HotelDesigns by Renée Heron/Dawson Design

The Blue Train, South Africa

The Blue Train, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Last time I rode a luxury train it was the Orient Express UK end, steam pulled from London to Kidderminster, and not the blue of Mallard or Sir Nigel Gresley either. Intended to be a celebration for designers of some good years when planned, the Lawson-induced crash turned it into a wake — grown men crying as they realised the Tory party had bankrupted them in the search for parity with the new Euro, much as many grown men cried in 2010 as they realised bankers had shafted them in this latest crash.

The decision to take the African equivalent of the Orient Express, was one haunted by my 1992 ghosts, but the Blue Train provided an effective exorcist. The train runs a regular luxurious service between Pretoria and Cape Town, timetabled as 27 hours. It harks back to a more graceful era of travel, and is all the better for that.

Relaxed journeys are for those who enjoy travelling as much as arriving, essential here as much of the line is single track. Delays are almost inevitable as we waited for mile long freight trains full of South African minerals to trundle past on the sections of loop track where this was possible. The train describes itself as a window into the soul of Africa, and it does a pretty good job of giving a privileged window into South Africa as it travels the 1000 miles through informal settlements, townships, small towns and farming communities, through a wide variety of land and townscapes.

The Blue Train, South Africa

We started in Tshwane, the administrative capital of South Africa that used to be better known as the capital of Afrikanerdom under the name Pretoria. Surprisingly the Voortrekker monument to the brutal Dutch pioneers still stands high on its dominating hill above the city. Almost a suburb of Johannesburg now, Tshwane is a busy city dominated by the civil servants that run government and the Blue Train starts its journey in the main station, still labelled Pretoria, amongst the busy commuter trains, including the new high speed ‘Gautrain’, standard Metro trains and dedicated Metro Business expresses.

Standing on its own dedicated platform the Blue Train waits the passengers who check in to their own comfortable lounge, where the crew serve welcome drinks and are introduced to their charges. When all guests are assembled they are called off by suite number, baggage loaded in the baggage car and mealtime preferences registered.

The Blue Train, South Africa
The superb dining car can seat half the train at a time, and early brunch can be chosen along with the early dinner, but the guests first have time to settle into the marvellous cabins before they start to eat. Entrance onto the train itself is a piece of theatre and the wood panelled and brass railed corridors barely prepare the guest for the richness of the design of the classical interiors, full of gleaming brass and glowing timber marquetry.

I have stayed in some pod hotels, and some so called 5-star hotels with tiny bedrooms that cannot compare with the luxury achieved in these railway carriages. My cabin had a comfortable lounge with a huge picture window and its own gold tapped en-suite marble bathroom. The choices of cabin include a special provision for the less able and larger luxury cabins with more floor space. Twin or doubles, bath or shower complete the choice. Unlike most hotels the choice is offered on booking, too. Would that hotels that offer shower only bathrooms gave the guest the choice of shower or bath on booking — giving them the choice of going elsewhere if shower only is not acceptable. Research has shown that shower only is unacceptable to over 30% of all guests and less acceptable still to the wealthy older cohort. That they have the choice on a train is a delight.

The Blue Train, South Africa
Unlike many hotels the train is able to offer a smoking lounge, up front, behind the engines, but this is the only area of the train where smoking is permitted — and the Chinese tourists took advantage of it, booking the closest cabins. The restaurant car was in the centre of the train, and immediately behind it was another, non-smoking saloon bar. After more cabins the last carriage was an observation car offering 360o views of the landscape traversed.

The advantage of train over plane or auto is of course the size of the windows. In the cabin each passenger could enjoy the view in comfort, many passengers locking open the carriage doors too, so that they could see clearly out of both side of the train. Riding gently in air-conditioned comfort in complete privacy enabled conversation about the passing views, face to face or side by side, interrupted only by the occasional service from the cabin butler or the call to eat and drink in the comfortable restaurant or bar car. Yet it was possible to go out and walk the train, to stretch and converse with other passengers, to be social in a way not possible in a plane or auto.

The gentle ride at a stately 55kph carried the rhythmic clunk over rail joints. Missing in rail traffic in Europe where tracks are welded rather than jointed, the rhythm was the only sound track as travel rolled the landscapes past gently. Many passengers had cameras permanently ready, and the television in each cabin, which could be used to watch videos or TV could also be tuned to an engine mounted camera to watch the track ahead.
Although the cabins were small at the evening meal the time was used to turn down and transform the cabin into a double bedroom – this functional change in effect doubling the cabin into a suite. The reverse process was achieved whilst breakfasting the following morning.

The Blue Train, South Africa
Sleeping on the train was far more comfortable than on a ship. It lacked that thumping juddering crash experienced when a ship hits a large wave, nor was it possible to hear the engines. The only sound was the rhythmic, gently soporific noise of iron on iron, the steady clunk setting a rhythm that lulled to a sleep only broken when silence came if the train stopped in one of the rail loops to allow for passing freight. Insulation was very good, so no sound from outside the cabin apart from the wheels on the rails, and the tv could be used to watch movies or, if one preferred, the view from the front of the train.

The restaurant car , beautifully appointed with marquetry and murals, brass and the gleam of polish, glistened with white linen and fine china. Service matched a good five star and the fare included all the food and drink one could hold. Yet still there were the views. Occasionally the disparity between the wealth in the train and the poverty still there in some townships would become evident as a signal caused an stop where passengers looking out became like zoo exhibits as people waiting on an adjacent platform looked in, but generally a smile and wave was the response from outside to a lifted glass within.

The train showcases views of the mountains, the Klein Karoo and the veldt, and stops to provide a view of one of the world’s largest holes, the diamond mine at Kimberly. No samples alas but for those with the money and needing the gleam , there is an exclusive shop on the train where diamonds and jewellery can be bought through personal appointment.

The Blue Train, South Africa

South Africa is changing, slowly, noticeable and with increasing momentum as education (sorely neglected by the arrogant and frequently corrupt ANC leaders) and economic growth improve the lot of the majority. I think South Africa is reasonably safe for tourism – take advice before you go. There are areas I avoid, and I get good local advice, but it is a good buy for Europeans and needs your tourist money to help the rainbow nation truly flower.

The beauty of the country is showcased through the windows of this train, as are the local standards of service through the charm and courtesy of the staff. Design harks back to an age when grace and pleasure in travel were key ingredients of the experience, when comfort was more important than style alone, and when customer experience ruled over the bean counters. Using the Blue Train really does show how it can be better to travel than to arrive.

© Words and pictures by Patrick Goff. From a journey in May 2013

Shangri-La, Dubai

Shangri-La, Dubai UAE (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

In February 2005 I reported that Shangri-La had signed a lease on the space in then planned Shard, and had already started design work in their Singapore design office. The Shard represented an opportunity for the operator to develop the interiors of the hotel without the constraints had it gone down the route of looking for a conversion of a building or existing hotel to meet Shangri-La standards. The large deluxe guestrooms would be each 42m² and bring a European interpretation of Shangri-La’s Asian style to the city, according to executives.

The building was already being described by Giovanni Angelini, Shangri-La’s then Managing Director, as “iconic”, and provides a dramatic 2nd entry for Shangri-La hotels into the European market, after their recently opened Paris property. The Paris property, I was informed by a Shangri-La executive, had already shaken the Parisian hotel market with its standards , and the expectation was that London’s newest entrant would have a similar impact.

Given that for over 7 years London hotel groups have known that Shangri-La was coming, the expectation was surely that they would start positioning themselves to compete with the fast-growing Asian group. Shangri-La room sizes are regularly matched in European cities only by Rocco Forte Hotels at 42m², and many of London’s latest hotels have used the excuse of high property prices to foist onto the luxury market rooms of 27 or 28m². Is space a luxury? If so if there is no space is your room truly describable as a 5-star room?

Shangri-La, Dubai

If it were only room size that counted than London hotels could rest easy, but it is the quality of design, the quality of fit-out and above all the superb quality of service that will set nerves on edge of existing London operators. Many European hotel operators are about to experience the same impact on their operations that the superior design and service levels of Singapore Airlines or Emirates have had on the operation of European airlines (and the growth of Emirates in particular has been little short of remarkable with Dubai already commissioning a second airport hub to cope whilst London dithers).

Shangri-La are the first of a wave of Asian hoteliers that are moving into the mature Western markets. At the budget end we have seen Malaysian chain Tune moving into compete with Premier Inn, and recent announcements show that much as Intercontinental is developing fast in the Chinese market, so Asian operators are invading its home ground with their own 5 star operations, with more new luxury hotels now under development in 9 Elms, Battersea and in Park Lane.

The hotel in Dubai is one of several in the UAE (staff kept telling me I should go to Shangri-La Abu Dhabi which was “much nicer”) but as an hotel in the Financial Zone of Dubai and with a primarily business audience it seemed appropriate to take a good look at this, one of the first Shangri-La’s outside their home ground. The Shangri-La Dubai is now ten years old and due a major refurbishment in 2014/5, I was told. The design may be slightly dated,but this is only stylistically apparent especially as marble bathrooms with white ceramic and chrome metals never seem to date.

Shangri-La, Dubai

Obviously soft refurbs have taken place over the intervening years but the strength of the original design shows through, and the cosmetic doesn’t impact on the basics such as the size of the rooms (average of 44m²) and the services provided, both physical and human.The original designers also had the sense to use plenty of timber finishes in the design and they have worn well and been well maintained. It is often overlooked how good housekeeping can extend the life of an interior and so contribute to the hotel bottom line.

Olga Polizzi of Forte fame used to tell me she despaired of people in hospitality who never smiled at the guest. “If they don’t like people why be in hospitality” she would say. Shangri-La must use Ken Dodds tickling stick in training as the staff are all smiles in dealing with guests, and at ease talking to them. Their confidence comes not only from training but from a design and build that supports them. This is an hotel on a scale where space enables a relaxed level of service and interaction with the building and guests. Cramped spaces can psychologically raise tensions within guests, working against true relaxation. Space to swing your cat is an essential to any sensible definition of luxury.

Not only is there space within individual bedrooms but also within areas such as the business lounge, the pools (yes pools plural), spa, meeting areas and through to the choice of four food and bar operations. The attitude to serving alcohol in Dubai is an interesting contrast to the experience Hilton inherited at Cape Town’s Hilton. There may be strict laws enforced about drinking alcohol in public (how could anyone prefer it to the delicious camel-milk milkshakes?) but the attitude in the hotel did not appear to be any different to anywhere in Europe.

Shangri-La, Dubai
Maybe this relaxed attitude in this Muslim state reflects the fact that the population of Dubai is apparently nearly 80% ex-pat, and that the operator is an Asian company with their own cultural approach to hospitality. I’m told that only about 5% of the population of Dubai are Emirati.

Quite possibly the overwhelming international architectural styling of Dubai and the nature of business as the major trading post in the Middle East influences this multi-cultural identity – it certainly shows little inheritance of Arab architectural cultural traditions. The operator also offers interesting combinations of international cuisine with restaurants offering Chinese, Vietnamese, Moroccan and an ‘international’ buffet operation. Space for these is created in the mezzanine areas of the reception floors.

Shangri-La, Dubai

Catering training here seems to be well thought out with the ethnic chefs training in the homelands of the cuisine offered. Unless it be an operation like Youngs or Shire Hotels I can’t think of a chain that operates an Anglo-centric design and food operation equivalent. Again like the Shard, the building occupied by Shangri-La Dubai is a multi occupancy building. The hotel has the first 4 floors for its public areas, floors 5 to 8 being offices. There are 62 residential apartments, and 126 serviced apartments (serviced by the hotel) before floor 29 sees the start of the hotel’s 302 bedrooms, which include 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments. The upper floors are the the business floors (the Horizon rooms and club) with above them the pool, gym and presidential suite of over 430 square metres.

Good staff training, plentiful staff (and with mostly ex-pats, not cheaply staffed I would think, either)combine with a building selected to fit with Shangri-La’s operational philosophy. The parallels with the intentions stated in press releases for the Shard operation bode well for success in London.

Shangri-La, Dubai

The interior design of the hotel has lasted well, and was quality to start with. London has had an influx of new hotels at this level (the latest Intercontinental Westminster, the ME in the Aldwych for example, but none would seem to match the gerosity of size, nor the guest facilities provided by the Shangri-La. This is old style 5 star luxury – and this is the end of the hospitality market where profit growth is most marked and which has weathered recent economic stroms most effectively.
Space, the last frontier…

From a stay in May 2013. © Words and Pictures Patrick Goff 2013

Ampersand, South Kensington (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

A few years ago I was in Washington to Review a couple of hotels. Staying in a Staybridge Suites I was collared by the manager for advice on how to give some personality to the building. Frustrated by a build system where the hotel was built from plans onto a plot similar to previous buildings, no designer involved just the developer, they were concerned at how the interiors lacked style. In the US where brands are 80% of the market and generally land is available, cloning previous designs is straightforward – but each time a clone is created it becomes less individual, drifts further away from the original vision, which becomes diluted. In the UK, as Ampersand shows, the situation is quite different.

Over here new builds are the exception rather than the rule and the skill of the hotel interior designer is a sine qua non in developing hotels that work in buildings that may be hundreds of years old. Here the brands represent a minority of the operators. Individual owner/operators drive the market competitively, creating hotels that become benchmarks in styling, forcing brands to compete.

This is especially true in the boutique market, where Starwood spawns ‘W’ out of Westin, Accor gives birth to the M Gallery and IHG tries to create its own boutique brands through Indigo to take a share of the market for more individual hotel experiences.It may be argued that the brand giants are, in themselves, inimical to innovative design. Corporate decision making can be defensive whilst owners of hotels such as Ampersand or My Hotel, Magdalen Chapter or Cliff House Hotel are driven to compete with design as they otherwise lack the marketing muscle of a Hilton or other large brand.

Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington, London

With over 80% of bookings now being made via the web this may be changing, but certainly creating an attractive hotel in an old building such as the Victorian structure that houses Ampersand poses particular problems for architects and designers, whilst filling them remains a problem for the owners.

Mr Hilton argues the key to success was ‘location, location, location’ and for Ampersand its position within view of London’s national museums in South Kensington is key to unlocking this particular door. The spires of the Natural History Museum are clearly visible from the hotel and the V&A, Science Museum and other attractions in the aptly named Museum Road are a gentle five minute stroll away.

Next door to the heavily oversubscribed French lycée it is not surprising that the hotel also makes every effort to capture lunchtime trade and afternoon teas with well designed and carefully defined food offerings too. If the brief for each area was clear then the styling created by the designers has made the definition the owner desired. However to this observer it leads to some disconnect between styles in different part of the hotel, although that may just be my taste kicking in. Certainly the design works in each area, and if the intention was to create a slight shock of surprise on moving from space to space then the designers have achieved their aim. The contrast between the cool international sophistication of the lobby and the very English decorative quality of the lounge is marked.

Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington, London

The decorative wallpapers are echoed in the paintings although the result might have a more ironic twist if the paintings had just been of wallpaper, without the surrealist pastiche of glasses full of giraffe. The result is visually busy, and fits with the array of cakes available , their icing decorations matching the decorative treatments of the walls and carpets. The surreal bent is continued through a birdcage (echoing Magritte) perched on a waiter station, all slightly at odds with the Peter Philips influenced bird painting that is a glorious feature of reception. Whilst I may balk slightly at the art it is well chosen and the imagery works as a tongue in cheek supplement to the decor. So often the art in an hotel fails to add to the interiors, but here, as in the ‘M’ Gallery with which the tea room seems to share a common aesthetic, the art adds to the overall decorative effect.

The space at the foot of the stairs is utilised for public internet access computers, with a stylish seating area in the centre and an endstop of a large 3D mural maintaining a visually interesting area as a set piece. As well as acting as the lift lobby and internet space the area also leads into the bar restaurant, which itself has a separate entrance from the street. The decoration is carried through the staircase with a similar chandelier concept to that we showed in our review of the Kempinski Dukes Palace in Bruges. Here the lamps appear to fly off the central pillar like frightened birds, or bugs of some kind. It is a visually delightful device that successfully links the floors. Fire doors are not apparent but secure the bedroom corridors off this space, whilst at the lower ground floor the staircase leads into the further public areas of the restaurant, private dining and meeting rooms.

Bar and restaurant are successful in capturing bistro atmosphere as well as styling and the separate street entrance is enabling that difficult trick that fails to be achieve by most hotel restaurants, that of attracting a clientele in addition to the hotel guest. However with over a hundred bedrooms the space is too small to cater for all guests, but as it is in the heart of an area well served by restaurants that is not a problem and the tea room above is used to cope with the breakfast rush.

Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington, London

Styling here again contrasts with the lobby and tea room, the white painted exposed brick creating a Parisian feel. Large upholstered bar stool caters to the ‘Friday night millionaires’, just as likely in South Ken to be the genuine article of course. Tables are well spaced and the cellar (which this no doubt originally was) lends itself to small private dining areas, and the sense of privacy is enhanced by the brick vaulting. The areas of the cellars are split, each receiving its own unique design treatment. The timber lined private dining area or boardroom is finished in floor to ceiling joinery, including refrigerated wine cabinets and glasses showcase. The joinery is of a high standard and as throughout the hotel the quality of the detailing speaks volumes for a design and build team that has really known what it is doing. This is one of the most beautifully finished interiors I have seen in a long time.

Beyond the ‘boardroom’ is a library and beyond that a larger space set up as a meeting area.The beautifully detailed joinery is painted, with the colour being picked up in the carpet. The carpet also mimics the colouring of the timber edge to the flooring , itself a device the designer has used to link these dissimilar areas successfully. All the spaces are bright and well lit not just with inventive lighting installation but with the benefit of plenty of natural light from the front despite them being basement areas.

The overall result is harmonious and despite my reservations about the variation of design between the different areas, the result overall hangs together well, with the differentiation providing a series of enjoyable and different interiors as the guest moves through the hotel. Whilst the design of the public areas manages to create the feel of modern contemporary open spaces, it is in the corridors that the Victorian hotel origins of the building become most apparent. However the design treatment of them carries the same felicitous touches as the public areas.

Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington, London

Pattern and images are used powerfully with subtlety throughout the interiors, from the etched glass screens in the entrance lobby, the ‘birds’ of the chandelier to the digitally imaged pigeons on the wallpapers. Colour, carried through from the basement, is used to break up the corridor visually preventing the tunnel effect that is so apparent in many hotels. Lighting is almost traditional in the corridors but the large motifs, taking advantage of modern printing techniques, are also used with some subtlety to create interest. In using similar motifs to the bedrooms the designers have carried a design unity through the bedrooms from the corridors.

Corridors are carpeted and retain the skirtings and dado of the original styling. Carpet pattern again harmonises with the wallpaper design, simplicity and sophistication going together. With the end of minimalism I worried that many designers would shout with colour, but here the designer shows a cool sophisticated handling of colour and pattern that marks them out from the herd, whilst at the same time there is a sense of place, almost a sense of drama, about the treatment of the interiors.

Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington, London

The sense of drama continues through the bedrooms and bathrooms, along with an indulgent comfort. The usual use of high quality linens contributes but it is the thoughtfulness of the design, the attention to detail that stand out here. Small details like the buttoning on the upholsteries have been thought through as a part of the scheme with button colours picking up colours in the cushion fabrics. It may seem a small insignificant detail but it is one that contributes to the overall feeling of quality that has been created. Similarly the placing of sockets above the bedside table enables phone or tablets to be plugged in by the bedhead for use whilst in bed.

Similarly in the bathrooms small details add to the overall effect of luxury, and in the suites the addition of the water proof televisions enhances the sybaritic bath experience. We all know the devil is always in the detail but here the interior designers is a shining example to others in the profession of how things should be done.

In Ampersand London gains another excellent new hotel, continuing openings which, like that of the Arch continues the London tradition of bespoke boutiques that are stylish, well designed and offer a very attractive alternative to the brands. With good food and good service complimenting good design this will become a stalwart (and no doubt profitable) part of the London scene.

©Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a stay in November 2012

More and more people are opting for a 'staycation' in the post-Brexit era

Cary Arms Hotel, Devon (Patrick Goff)

1000 713 Daniel Fountain

Babbacombe is just along the road from Torquay – so close in fact that some people class it as Torquay suburbs, but it is not. My mother’s family are from around here and I played on the beach as a child, so the England deliberately evoked by this hotel is the England of my childhood. It is the England of childhood adventure and sophisticated adult pleasure. Classy and authentic, the hotel summons an English vernacular in a down-to-earth manner.

Owned by the de Savary family, the hotel is expanding with additional bedrooms being built and the spa expanded, but the existing 1920’s building has the grace of a bygone era; it serves cream teas, local ales and local foods.

The small harbour nearby shelters yachts and fishermen bring their catches straight to the hotel kitchens. It’s a place of cliff walks and choughs, seals and sailing boats, sand and ice-cream. What could be more English? The relaxed interiors reflect the nautical traditions of Devon, and posters and imagery play shamelessly on the collective memory that pretends the past is a better place than the present. Maintaining these myths is not easy alongside the demands of the 21st century traveller, but the Cary Arms performs the trick almost effortlessly.

This Anglo vernacular is exploited unselfconsciously with the skill of a master magician’s conjuring trick. The innocence of Devon perhaps, from whence local people drive to London and naively expect to be able to tour around the capital and park their car to view the attractions. Maybe the past is not being recreated here but is actually still alive and well? With it comes relaxed standards of service, staff that smile a great deal and have pride in place.

Cary Arms Devon, UK

This is a place to have pride in too. Not only does it have the location in classical Devon seaside landscape beloved of the Pre-Raphaelites, a funicular railway to the cliff top along the beach, but it has the cliff walks, seals in the harbour, yachts and views, all of which have probably been largely unchanged since the hotel opened. Sensibly the owners have built on that foundation, respecting the past and building ‘with the grain’ both inside and outside the hotel.

Interior schemes are eclectic, appearing aggregated rather than designed and typically English exercises in comfort. The style emerges from the eclecticism, intended a reflection of individual obsession and collection rather than a boutique designer approach. This hotel has a personality because it is reflective of an individual’s personality. Thought has gone into creating definition of areas so the styling of the ‘pub’ part of the property is local and vernacular. The emphasis is on local materials in much the same way that the emphasis on food is on local. Walls are of local stone, traditional heating supplements the central system with log burning stoves, and the area outside is brought into play.

The definition between the hotel part and the pub part is clear, the balustrade immediately defining the more stylish hotel areas, separating and keeping them private from the pub/restaurant operation. This is cleverly done and the comfort created in both areas is created stylishly.

Cary Arms Devon, UK

The hotel part harks back to another era. Slightly reminiscent of the 1930’s, the emphasis on comfort gives it a timeless English quality, a little like Babbacombe itself. The nautical theme emphasises this local link such as models of boats and images of the Americas Cup races unified, whereas the furniture looks like collected individual pieces. The hotel calls itself the ‘Inn on the Beach’ and indeed its gardens roll down to the shoreline. Maximising these is not just the walks but the ‘bandstand’ seating area above an artist studio, public and private lounging areas, a circular dining ‘pod’ for romantic couples and a hammock to hang out in.

The area is warmer than most of Britain and earns its sobriquet of the English Riviera with enough sunshine to add al fresco dining to the offer with confidence that for many months this will be a norm. For guests there is the delight of breakfast in the conservatory rather than in the pub environment if the weather mitigates against breakfast outside.

Devon cream teas and a relaxed environment with no bustle enhance the conjuring up of an earlier era the hotel is so good at creating. This is the English seaside resort of an earlier generation recreated with the creature comforts of the 21st century, including the internet. The creature comforts of the 21st century are reflected in the luxury treatment afforded in the bathrooms as well as the additional sybaritic pleasure of spa treatment rooms. The importance of this luxury to the hotel offering is reflected in the additional building under construction that will add further bedrooms and develop the spa offering more. The hotel may currently only have a small number of bedrooms but these are already extended by the offering for rental of a number of the village cottages as serviced accommodation.

Cary Arms Devon, UK
Nearly every bedroom has its own balcony with a sea view and the hotel also makes provision for guests to bring their dogs, supplying dog beds, dog bowls and even a dog menu in the restaurant. With the beach and cliff walks available this is a doggy paradise as well as one for the human guests.

The clever design – to make it so undesigned in look is a difficult trick for a professional designer – is relaxed in the bedrooms too. However everything that should be here is here, and if the fabric of the building needs some work (windows are painted shut for example) everything that you would find in a run of the mill four star you will find in this beautiful little Inn. A curfew operates on the terrace so that noise intrusion to the bedrooms is prevented, and as most are away from the pub part of the building, the only sound is the susurration of the wind and the sea. The shift from the pub design into the hotel design areas is simple and well done – not perhaps as well as the Alma, but that was an urban boozer and this is a piece of the past, so the lack of high style in favour of comfort is not a misjudgement here.

A baluster and simple rope serve to separate off the guest area, including access to the bedrooms, from the areas available for the pub guests. A similar gentle division separates off much of the outside seating area for sole use by hotel guests too.

Cary Arms Devon, UK

There is a discreet area behind the building with loungers, a hammock and a small cabin used as an outside dining room and for weddings etc., bringing a little Caribbean style from de Savary’s properties there into this corner of Babbacombe. The main dining area is however, a little piece of Devon vernacular, stylishly done using local stone and again found ‘seafarer’ touches that key in to locality. It is a difficult balancing act keeping the pub feel whilst creating a sophisticated dining experience, something managed well in Shibden Mill, but if anything it is managed better here. Using the conservatory has enabled the creation of a light, pleasant breakfast dining area whilst the log fires creates a warm snug feel for those times when the weather is not sunny – and let’s face it, this is England and it does happen to rain here.

The unity in the interior created by the use of stone and the dark timber seats enhances the warmth of the space. It breaks into small areas allowing it to seat individuals or small groups in some privacy as well as creating the clatter of the busy bistro. With picture windows giving the views out, the spaces are not claustrophobic whilst the light and airy conservatory gives balance to the dark cosiness of the other dining areas. The overall feel is of an intimate embracing space, with the warmth of a traditional pub but enough sophistication to serve the hotel well. Similar to de Savary’s other property, the Old Swan and Minster Mill on the Windrush in some respects, this Inn on the Beach is if anything more successful at capturing that ‘Englishness’ that is obviously one of the sales strength of both properties.

Cary Arms Devon, UK

I am fascinated by the vernacular. Strangely it seems strongest in Germany both the old East and the West (see NiederSachsen for example, whilst we seem to misfire with our awareness of it in the UK. The chains are concerned with brand image, selling a commodity product to defined, often very high, standards. Independent hotels seem to drift more to the kind of global ‘international’ image look rather than reflecting locality. This misses both the design strength of playing a local tune and the desire of overseas visitors to experience Britishness when here – in this case, the land of Drake, Devonian quality.

Why would anyone want to come here and feel that the location is not reflected in the interiors? As Mr. Hilton said, it is all about ‘location, location, location’. There is a difference between having a high standard, up to international levels, and being vernacular or localised. Both can be achieved. In his hotels, de Savary has recognised this and certainly in the case of the Inn on the Beach in Babbacombe, has gone a long way to succeeding.

Skamania, Oregon USA

Skamania, Oregon USA (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Like many Brits, my images of America are part Hollywood, part romance,part television all tempered with the reality of numerous visits over the years. The big cars with their fins and chrome may be in the past, but Skamania showed me how much of my imaginings are still to be discovered, including that mournful train wail that features in so many ‘westerns’.

Standing in the Cascade Mountains (and while it is officially a Washington State lodge, you need to go into Oregon to get here) it may not be surrounded by the giant redwoods, but on the slopes of Mount Hood the hotel is in the midst of the National Scenic area of the Columbia River Gorge and surrounded by acres of beautiful pine forest.

The Columbia River Gorge is the main route through the Cascades here, and along it runs the railway as well as the freeway, Interstate 84. The drive to the hotel from Portland is all along the Oregon side of the Columbia River, crossing the ‘Bridge of the Gods’ to Stevenson. Romantic and fully in tune with my images of America, to give me what one of my childhood heroes, Mr Pastry, would have said were the ‘deep joys’.

Skamania, Oregon USA
A sister lodge to the lodge that is the Alderbrook Resort and Spa in the Olympic National Park, Skamania is being refurbished by Dawson Designs’ Seattle office, the same designers that worked on Alderbrook, now winning awards as one of the best hotels in the Pacific North West of the USA. I was privileged to be one of the first design writers to see the early results of the makeover given to the main public areas, and it was a chance to experience the hotel and the Cascades.

The cultural differences between the US and Europe are deep, and yet one is rooted in t’other. This similarity with dissonance is reflected in US interiors. Although the internationalism of design is growing along with increasing blandness, there are fortunately still enough differences of colour and texture to make trips like this worthwhile. The nature of interiors is such that unlike many other forms of design, they can truly reflect location , indeed in most interiors I would argue should reflect location. This was true at Alderbrook and certainly it looks as if it will be true here at Skamania too.

It can be a difficult balance to strike a local note without falling over a line into kitsch, but this is a line that Dawson tread very carefully and successfully. I suppose that I see Skamania, Alderbrook and Mohonk Mountain House as a kind of Yankee equivalent to the English Country House hotel, but without the snobbery. Deeply rooted in American traditions these are very relaxed establishments, child-friendly if not family centred. All have a tradition of providing conference and meeting facilities and award winning spas (in the case of Alderbrook and the Mohonk). Skamania, although only 20 years old, is upgrading its Spa and public areas as a first stage in reworking its offering perhaps with a view to winning awards and becoming a destination Spa as Mohonk and Alderbrook have done. It also has an 18 hole mountain golf course.

Skamania, Oregon USA
Like Alderbrook Resort and Spa , the reception lobby decants the guest into a superb triple height lounge with extensive use of timber in both structure and paneling. Dominated by the stone fireplace, this comfortable area with rocking chairs in front of the log fire has huge picture windows looking out to the lake behind the Bonneville dam. Currently the coffee stand that spoils the peace of the space will be replaced by a coffee shop using an adjoining space and providing an alternative route into the grounds in front, which no good American citizen seems able to enter without clutching a life-saving giant cardboard cup of coffee. The use of one side of the lounge as a corridor to outside breaks the contemplative tranquillity that would otherwise be the delight of this haven from the industrial world.

Whilst Skamania does not have the naturalist on the staff that Mohonk Mountain House does, it maybe goes one better by having a Forest Ranger office in the lobby, marked by an 8 foot high sculpture of a grizzly bear, still occasionally found in the surrounding forests I understand. Adjacent to the concierge desk the helpful Rangers supplement the information and services the concierge provides. On the opposite side of the entrance lobby is the tourist shop providing that source of postcards, local artefacts etc. that is otherwise not easily accessible without resorting to the car.

Huge car parking spaces, one adjacent to the golf course, make access easy as does having a separate conference entrance and reception area. The hotel offers twenty-three meeting rooms and over 22,000 square feet of meeting, exhibition and banquet space. In addition, Skamania Lodge offers over 40,000 square feet of seasonal outdoor venue space tucked within the forests.

Once in the hotel everything you might need is here. All the public areas open up onto the terrace with views across the Columbia river valley, including the fire pit, an idea spoiled for me by many of these installations using gas to fire them rather than burning real logs. Here real wood may be the fuel, and it is in the huge lounge fire, unlike the silly ceramic gas log used at Alderbrook. The two dining rooms offer plenty of menu variety and choice with the main restaurant, styled in a vaguely deco timber-work finish. The deco feel comes from the use of pale timber joinery plus the spacing and styling of the square lanterns throughout.

Skamania, Oregon USA
The main restaurant offering includes a menu based around the use of a wood fired oven. It also offers a choice of seating styles from booth to open table, with a large servery area in the centre. The space is flexible with one end being loose furniture, enabling parties to dine together whilst small groups can gain some privacy using the more private booth style seating area.

The bar and bistro, subject of the recent refurbishment, majors on locational keys, with again a huge stonework fireplace with the head of an unfortunate moose dominating. Antler and horn are used by the designer throughout, and tables offer varying seating locations, numbers, heights etc. making for an interesting space that divides itself into zones neatly and easily.

The bar has witty references to other areas – there is a small grizzly supporting shelves for example, echoing the entrance area sculpture, and the area behind the bar has a painting representing the surrounding woodland. Funky details abound – a hollow log, stools made from sections of tree trunk, a pair of moose antlers (seems as if the moose population in this part of the States is a favourite prey of the hunters) and patterning when used is indicative of native Americans traditions. The overall effect is very comfortable visually and physically, enhanced by fireplaces and typical high quality service. Both the refurbished bar and the new lounge area are proving very popular with guests.

The layout of the building plan separates off the conference area from the main areas, placing the potential for noise from gatherings at the opposite end in what is a very large building from the space occupied by the spa and pool. The pool hall itself is a handsome space, open into the roof timbers, and the skylight providing reflection in the water. Its glass doors open onto outside terraces, one of which is occupied by the outside area of the very cramped spa. The treatment rooms for the spa are conversions of bedrooms I suspect, and as such they lack panic buttons, soundproofing or any of the real luxury trappings expected in a European spa. As such they will need considerable lift if the spa is to operate in a way that will draw spa aficionados in from areas around, as happens at Mohonk, where the 1990’s spa addition has proved very successful.

Skamania, Oregon USA
Whilst effective as treatment rooms, there are only two spaces, alongside the small gym and the pool areas. The outside pool for the spa is a successful and slightly romantic piece of design, using large rocks to create an illusion of a river section for the whirlpool area. However again the outside relaxation area is quite small and the whole spa seems out of scale for such a large hotel.

The conference areas themselves have their own terraces and breakout zones, easily serviced from the hotel kitchens. With their own reception desk and lobby area, they offer clients the opportunity to create an event that can run quite separately from the hotel, with its own entrance etc., allowing conferences a feeling of some exclusivity. They are also placed at the same end of the hotel as the golf course allowing an easy interaction between the two.

The outdoor spaces also include an amphitheatre down the slope from the hotel, whilst the lawns in front lead onto forest walks and the wild beauty of the Columbia Gorge. Bedrooms are large and well laid out generally although the suites are a lot less convincing. The bedrooms take advantage of their width to have large desk areas, and all have spaces that are almost big enough for walk-in wardrobes. The arc of the building gives most views of the river gorge.

The suites often have open fireplaces in them – although unlike Mohonk where the guests are trusted to light their own log fires, here the fires are gas effect. Safer perhaps but certainly less romantic than going to sleep to the flickering light of burning logs. I find it curious that where the suite has a lounge with settees etc. the log fire is nonetheless placed in the bedroom, so the opportunity to have that romantic evening sitting in front of the fire is lost, but maybe that is just an English concept of cosiness.

Skamania, like Alderbrook, reaches into the heart of America – the heart that embraces wilderness and the natural world (not the one that then goes out and slaughters it with automatic weapons). With easy access for skiiing in the winter, walks and wild life in the summer, water sports on the Columbia and a large slice of the history of development and exploration that led to statehood for Oregon in 1859 and Washington State some 30 years later the hotel is well placed to provide a luxury escape for the urban populations from surrounding states.

From a visit in August 2012. © Words and Photographs Patrick Goff

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Unmissable as you drive in to Exeter, this 60 bedroom hotel occupies a spectacular example of a re-engineered building. The hotel is a conversion of the West of England Eye Hospital for Swire Group. The foundation stone was laid originally on the 11th April 1899 to a design by Sir Alfred Brummell Thomas. The entrance includes a large 18th century marble fireplace that was taken from the former house on the site.

Swire Group are reputed to be one of the ‘hongs’ portrayed in James Cavell’s novel ‘Noble House’, having existed as a trading house in Hong Kong since the early years of the 19th century. Currently Swire is a UK headquartered multi million pound conglomerate operating shipping, aviation, and property groups. Magdalen Chapter is the second of their Chapter branded hotels in the UK, the other being in Cheltenham. The group also has developed and owns hotels in Asia, including Coral Sea Hotels, Indigo Beijing etc…

When the eye hospital closed in 1992, the building was eventually sold and converted into the Hotel Barcelona at a cost of £2.6 million, opening in 2001. It was acquired by Swire group at the end of 2008. Designers Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios are the masterminds behind this reported £6.8 million relaunch of the Magdalen Chapter, which reopened in 2012, and in fact was not fully completed on my visit, as the spa remained unfinished. The designers have master planned an extension of the old hotel, imaginatively embracing the garden area as a part of the theatre of the building.

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter
At the front the grandeur of the original “hybrid baroque style” exterior is maintained, with the imposing entrance opening into the original hallway. Whilst the original structure is evident, and there remain reminders dotted around of the original use of the building, the architects have not been overawed by conservation, and have created a thoroughly modern set of spaces as public areas.

The operator has adopted a similar ‘deskless’ check in system to that previously shown at Andaz, but here there is a lack of focus and the signage is a little over discreet, causing a little loss of confidence, a little confusion, in the incoming guest, easily solved by having a ‘greeter’ at the front door – maybe necessary too because of the limited car parking available on approach, which may need marshalling. In the Andaz the ‘deskless’ reception is a way of enabling personal service to the guest, with greeters always present to greet arriving guest and to sit down with them and book them in. Here staff are often invisible leaving the guest somewhat baffled as to where to go, although the lonely lap top balanced on top of the carving is a clue that this is the ‘desk’. This half-baked approach, neither fish nor fowl, provides neither an identifiable desk, nor the welcoming smile that characterises the Andaz approach.

The designers have succeeded elsewhere in blending the best features of the pre-existing building with their contemporary extensions. Whilst the bar area is the most cramped space it is actually well placed to service all the public areas. It’s comfortable seating creates a clubby atmosphere, encouraging guests to linger , but behind it is the library and off that a new space has been created to make a large lounge which acts as both a social area and a bistro for less formal dining than that available in the beautifully designed restaurant.

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter
The library itself has a small area which can be used for informal meetings or semi-private dining, as well as the bookshelves and comfortable sofas for guest to enjoy. This new extension is part of a circle of buildings surrounding the garden. What appears as a garden shed is in fact a self sufficient meeting room on one side, whilst on the opposite is a spa with an ‘indoor/outdoor’ pool, treatment rooms and its own log burner for heating. This latter links to the bar/bistro with a patio and the whole, with the restaurant opening to the garden, will be delightful on a sunny summers day, if England ever sees one again.

The link from the front area of the hotel to the restaurant can be through the bar but there is also a quiet corridor link with glimpses into a small internal garden space. The restaurant itself also has a private dining area and a show kitchen. The maitre d’ point is intelligently placed adjacent to the entrance and here the staff seem eminently able to greet all incoming guests. Restaurant design is optimistic. How else can one describe a space designed to open to the garden in one of the wettest summers on record, other than as optimistic?

Tables are a good size , and unlike many restaurants are laid out to leave a sensible amount of space between seated guests for servers to move easily. This may seem a minor point but if waiting staff can serve easily they will serve quickly and with a smile, much easier to do both if the design is enabling, as it is here.

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter
The extension that is the restaurant sits like a tent on the edge of the garden’s lawn area, and doors along the frontage will all open up to allow diners to spill our onto the terrace in summer, but their glazing also allows the interior to be flooded with light. A central supporting column prevents the space becoming the dominant feature allowing a feeling of intimacy to pervade as the space is visually broken up. The column itself is used as the basis for a central circular seating unit, preventing the structure dominating and along with banquette seating along the back wall allowing flexibility in seating types and arrangements. Colour is strong in the upholsteries but otherwise predominantly neutral.There are two areas, on off the restaurant and one off the library that can act as private dining areas, one of which is a formal private dining room that can be closed off , yet is a part of the restaurant itself.

The planning and layout of the areas of bar and the food operation are well done, and allow easy service routes to the main lounge, and to other snacking zones.The planning also allows easy service to be given to the meeting room, spa areas and the external meeting room. The extension and development of the additional areas has been done intelligently and sensibly (the two do not always go together) by the architects and designers. The layout of the previous hospital, into wards etc., also has helped with the bedroom layouts. Corridors have natural daylight and the rooms are generously sized high ceilinged, and a number have his and her bathrooms, a feature also seen in bedrooms at the luxury One and Only hotels, and in luxury establishments such as Bushmans Kloof.

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter

Bedrooms align with the fenestration of the building, giving bright airy rooms. They are large and the high ceilings enhance their spaciousness. Despite the large windows blackout is effective and the beds, with their organic Naturalmat mattresses, have plenty of space around them. Corridor runs are short making guest access easy and the building works well as an hotels – maybe instead of converting office buildings hotels groups should be looking to convert many of the small redundant hospitals appearing as health services coagulate into larger unit sizes offering wider ranges of expertise. Certainly with Victorian healthcare being so strongly linked to fresh air and sunlight these buildings with their large windows and areas flooded with daylight give the guest a great experience and some of the interiors carry heritage items that lift them out of the ordinary.

Magdalen Chapter, Exeter

Click on the image below this script to see an example of what I mean – tile patterns and round windows are surely inherited from a previous existence. Architectural details throughout are a delight and have been sensitively preserved in the conversion. With just 60 high quality rooms and high quality public areas I wonder whether this hotel should be operating at a higher rating than it does. In places the service matches the space – in the restaurant, food operation and bar service, for example, yet I feel that there is potential here that is as yet unrealised by the operator to lift the service to a higher level.

There are problems with guest parking, although the offsite car park is remarkably adjacent, but that apart the building seems to lend itself to its new use. The front has a street presence that is strong, whilst the new additions around the garden area to the rear make this into something special as an hotel. The designer has enhanced the buildings sense of place and created a terrific stage for the theatre of hotel keeping.

© Patrick Goff, Words and Pictures. From a stay at the end of July 2012.

The Francis, Accor M Gallery - Bath

Accor’s M Gallery, The Francis, Bath (Patrick Goff)

1000 572 Daniel Fountain

Aquae Sulis was the Roman name for this spa. The British of course are more ‘lumpen’ than classical, so called it Bath. It has been a resort town for millennia. Fittingly the Francis was built speculatively as a group of refined townhouses by John Wood the Elder, who lived in one of the houses, no.9. The terrace now forms the Francis hotel, no.9 the entrance lobby.

This has always been a wealthy part of the country and property prices in and around Bath are spectacularly higher than in most other parts of the country, in part due to the proximity of Charlie’s country home, but also because we tax payers have indulgently provided the chief of the Westminster chattering classes with a home nearby too. Both these have increased demand amongst the wealthier to live close by, presumably in hope of sharing a sherry occasionally. Into this wealthy town comes Accor, perceptively opening one of its new branded boutique hotels, an M Gallery, known throughout the area as the Francis, to serve both residents and the busy tourist market. The Francis is the chains second M Gallery in the UK, one of a growing number globally as Accor seeks to rework its brands which range from the luxury Sofitel through to the budget Ibis.

The Francis was first used for hospitality in the 1870s. The first owner, a Mrs Francis, moved from another hotel nearby, brought the remarkable canopy over the front door with her when she made it into a proper hotel (an early boutique perhaps) in 1884, converting it from its previous existence as a boarding house. The hotel obviously upset some German guests as they made a couple of return flying visits in the early 1940’s, leaving parts in ruins behind them.

The Francis, Accor M Gallery - Bath
Reopened in the middle of the last century the hotel has now had a major makeover by Accor to the tune of some £6 million. Any refurbishment of a Grade 1 listed building in the UK has to battle a quagmire of regulation and supervision, frequently leaving the designers with conflicting instructions to resolve, energy conservation for example conflicting with a requirement to keep existing single glazed sash windows. Here the designers have acknowledged the history of the buildings throughout the project giving Accor a stunning property full of visual excitement. The theatre is strong whether the hotel is entered from the front door, or from the rear car park. The visual theatre is accentuated by the use of lighting and ornament, bespoke light fittings adding their drama to the rich chromatic palette the interior designer has chosen. This was a bold design strategy, using strong colour and pattern, but the designer has carried it off with consummate skill.

A rear lobby that might have been a dull entrance is lifted by skillfully lit niches echoing Rome with their busts. In the front the entrance drama comes from primary colour allied with a striking black and white floor patterning. The white concierge desk and red individual reception desks are discrete, allowing the space to flow well and providing guests with views into lounges either side. The one decision I would question here is the idea that the bar should be hidden. Already diners from the adjacent restaurant are getting drinks from the bar there rather than the hotel bar, and bringing them into the hotel lounge to drink. As the restaurant is an independent operation this is not good economics for the hotel. A large mirror on the end wall would preserve discretion in hiding the bar behind a wall, whilst still allowing its presence to be evident.

The Francis, Accor M Gallery - Bath
The bar lounge itself uses the history to effect with screens and wallpapers echoing period patterning. ‘Decadent’ light fittings drip crystal jewels and combine with colour to present the perfect sybaritic antidote to those bleak minimalist hotel interiors we have suffered from in recent years.
The main lounge on the opposite side of Reception continues the hotels’ tradition of afternoon tea as well as apparently operating as a lounge to the Raymond Blanc restaurant. The smaller bar lounge has a beautifully lit display of blue glass providing the man lighting drama. The slightly Georgian style wing chairs are upholstered in red and blue alternating fabric, which also provides some chromatic drama. Lighting is supplemented with wall sconces and table lamps. The enclosed nature of this space makes it less visible from the area anyway, but the glass mural screen completes its isolation from any sign of the demon drink.

There is a careful balancing act to listening to guests and measuring what they say about the commercial criteria for the operation. This is especially true when the guest profile is elderly but they often surprise by their acceptance of change, frequently being more open minded than the young. Whilst also often the elderly are perceived as resistant to change, here the contemporary take on the design has gone down well from my observation. I suspect the complaints about the bar were probably more to do with its previous style rather than anything else. I have never noticed the older generation generally having any particular resistance to alcohol consumption…

The entrance doors at the end of the lounge and the notice on the hotel’s website of the presence of Bistro Blanc generally suggests that there is a link between the two, but this is not the case. This leaves bookings for dinner for guests at the mercy of the manger of Blancs, and the hotel’s own restaurant just acting as a breakfast area, despite its size and position. It may be the kitchen is inadequate but I would have thought that if capable of providing breakfasts, the famous ‘full English’, then like any other operation it can provide guests with a basic bistro operation as an alternative should Raymond Blancs be fully booked. This is quite possible in Bath where some restaurants are apparently booked five months ahead. My experience of Mercures is that they do not provide a full meal service and perhaps Accor intends for this to continue with its ‘M’ Gallery operation?

The Francis, Accor M Gallery - Bath
Whatever the operational mismatch, the design sings. The architectural layout has been revised but the colour and pattern bring it together.
With the original hotel being the merger of a number of buildings, the architects and interior designer have honoured the pattern with each house warranting a different colour scheme in the corridors. Plaques mark each building internally. Whilst the ground floor schemes attempt quite successfully to evoke the era that saw the glories of colour and pattern in such interiors as those of Brighton Pavilion, the bedrooms and bathrooms strike a very modern note.

Bold carpets in solid colour with strong borders are complemented by black lacquer beds. The solid colour is a risky approach as pattern can hide a multitude of spills and splashes, whilst solid colour does not, but visually it is strong. The walls are painted but in some rooms there are line drawings depicting Bath – run off as digital wallpaper prints and showing the versatility now available to the designer. Colour combinations are bold and harmonious, an are used in some rooms to revamp the fitted wardrobes installed by the previous operator. Strong colour and careful detailing such as the use of chrome switch plates and black lacquer for the bedroom case-goods add to the drama. Yet the whole effect is quite restful. So much so the designer has added a picture to the ceiling for you to look at as you relax…

In keeping with many British hotels the sash windows open as there is no air conditioning. This is the case in many British hotels where the view is that it is only needed for 14 days of the year. Certainly in an historic building like this introducing a system is difficult, if not impossible. The rooms have good proportions and all are en-suite, despite the difficulties in running the services that must have been experienced in an earlier build. A word of warning to all designers; glass tops on work desks stop computer mice working as the glass refracts the light the mouse needs to track with. Frustrating for a business man trying to work out why his mouse cursor is not moving. A return to grubby mouse mats perhaps – I hope not. Here the desk is a good size with ample sockets. There is also a table and two easy chairs so it is easy to see how with full meal service this hotel could easily become a five star experience.

The Francis, Accor M Gallery - Bath
The bathrooms too are well designed and behind all the baths and showers is a large mural image of the Roman baths, located in their original form an easy walk from the hotel. Showers are both rain head and a hand unit. The powerful showers throw out a large volume of water. This in turn causes a problem in that the extract is unable to cope, leaving the room dripping as the steam condenses out on the walls and ceiling. Fortunately most bathrooms have opening windows, but either more powerful fans or an additional extract might be needed to provide a solution.

Baths are standard European baths boasted of in the US as being a ‘soaking tub’. The large wash stands give a sense of additional style as well as harking back in style to an earlier era. This is all a part of the designers consideration all the way through the project of reminding the guest subtly of the history of the building. This is, in my view, a glorious refurbishment only marred by some curious operational decisions. However, if an indicator of the general quality Accor are to achieve throughout their new ‘M’ Gallery brand, it will provide serious competition in the boutique hotel market.

All words and images are ©Patrick Goff. From a visit made in July 2012.

The Plettenberg, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 667 Daniel Fountain

Seaside towns have a look about them. The ocean close by obviously, but the kind of shops they have – a strange mix of sunhats surfboards and post cards mixed with high end retail to capture the spending of the wealthy second homers. So it is too with seaside accommodation, a mix of jolly B&B’s, engaging boutique style operations, the family resort hotels full of kids, sand and entertainment. Occasional the five stars hotels try to stand above the hubbub and offer a premium experience with high achieving restaurants and urban levels of service.

Plettenberg has all these ingredients complicated by the fact that some 80% of the houses are second homes. This means population can increase tenfold at a weekend, but the hotels bring a steady footfall of visitors all the year around. It has the range, the B&B’s resort hotel on the beach, the boutiques such as the Grand Café with Rooms, and the five star rated Plettenberg.

Main street Plettenberg sits just back from the top of the cliffs and the Plettenberg, the town’s main five star offering, sits off this main drag in a stunning cliff top location.The hotel has glorious unobstructed views across Plettenberg Bay. Like the location of the Marine in Hermanus, on Walker Bay, it offer the opportunity for whale watching (at the right time of year) from your hotel room.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
Plettenberg is often regarded as the whale watching capital of the world. It is claimed as such on the South African Tourism website. Certainly this coast is the breeding ground for whales as I found on my visit to McGrath’s sister hotel, and both are on the Garden Route drive along the coast so offer more than this anxiety inducing binocular exercise. Although the whales when they are abundant come right under your bedroom window, timing is all, leaving those whose timing is wrong in desparate search of a plume like whalers of old.

The hotel is actually several buildings, the two main bocks facing each other across the end of the cul-de-sac that ends in the scrub on the cliff top. Both sides have pools, one side being suites the other containing the bars restaurants and bedrooms. The reception desk is immediately inside the door but the lobby is ‘see through’ so the arriving guest, welcomed by a porter, gets an eyeful not just of bar and restaurant but also the vista stretching around the bay beyond.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
In 2011 the Western Cape had a poor tourist year. The previous year had been dominated by the World Cup but 2011 saw the region catching the backlash from the European and US recessions. the normal numbers of tourists from the UK diminished as did the flow, previously growing, of visitors from the USA. Overall numbers were down by over 40%. Recovery is underway, but the knock to the cash-flow had put back the refurbishment of the bedrooms that I had hoped to see. So how did this third McGrath hotel measure up against my high expectations, expectations created by the high quality of the Marine and that other gem, the Cellars Hohenort in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia?

The public areas mostly matched those expectations, and whilst they exceeded them in some areas, some were laden with tradition to the point of extinction. The bedrooms, whilst becoming dated, are still stylish and very comfortable. As with many hotels these days though the overuse of scented cleaning materials causes problems for those sensitive to artificial odours. This is not the first hotel, and I’m sure won’t be the last, where here appears to be a misguided belief that using heavily scented items enhances the offering. In a seaside hotel it is the scent of the sea the guest wants, surely? Leaving aside the grumble, the bedrooms are chic – not shabby, but with an old fashioned charm.

Like all McGraths hotels they are beautifully finished and as sophisticated as one would expect from one of the premier Relais & Chateau operators in South Africa. There are two bedroom buildings plus a house that is a fully serviced holiday apartment with its own pool.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
There is a small Spa area beneath it with a thriving local trade in several treatment and beauty rooms. The main block of bedrooms are above the main dining area and infinity pool, whilst the second block, on the opposite side of the road, holds the suites with their own infinity pool and sun lounge.
The views from the second building are if anything more stunning than those from the first as it has views both ways along the coast. It has its own grand entrance and entrance staircase, coolly stylish, whilst the sun lounge provides a quiet retreat both for those wanting separation from the main hotels and for those from the pool to retire to, escaping perhaps from the wind and the occasional squall.

Differentiation between the suites and the standard rooms is difficult as both have separate living room areas. The suites are much larger, but both are large by European standards anyway, certainly comparable in scale to the rooms in the Rocco Forte Charles in Munich, which average 42m² compared to a typical UK five star of 33m². It is the style of the case goods as much as anything which dates these rooms, fabrics and soft furnishing generally looking fresh and quite contemporary.

Having seen the newer contemporary rooms installed at the Cellars Hohenort, McGrath’s hotel in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia, I know the design potentials of this group, so just maybe I have an excuse to come back another time.

You see my expectations may have been high but this hotel more than met them. The quality of the service and the design of the public areas was again superb. Agreed there are some parts of the public areas that like the bedrooms are a little dated but the design of the bar and restaurant show what can be achieved. Elements of the bar echo those deployed at the Marine in Hermanus, but a house look is no bad thing if it is stylish and temporised by location, as this one is.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
You see my expectations may have been high but this hotel more than met them. The quality of the service and the design of the public areas was again superb. Agreed there are some parts of the public areas that like the bedrooms are a little dated but the design of the bar and restaurant show what can be achieved. Elements of the bar echo those deployed at the Marine in Hermanus, but a house look is no bad thing if it is stylish and temporized by location, as this one is. The bar is front lit and whilst it is visible from the reception desk it has private areas for drinkers as well as a large lounge in front. It is adjacent to the restaurant so allows wine service from the bar station and ready access to the cellar. It is also then easy to maintain a drinks service to the terrace all day, including of course a champagne breakfast if required.

The adjacent restaurant is a modern glass cube built into an angle of the building leaving a wide terrace to the infinity pool for diners. As an addition its not problem free, and steps down from the lounge can take an unwary guest into the edge of umbrellas. It is inevitable that there will be areas where old and new don’t quite mesh perfectly, but here as at the other two McGrath hotels the addition is generally managed well by the in-house design team.

Across the group there is a mix of styles in bedrooms with the best being at what I regard as the flagship property, the Cellars Hohenort. Here bedrooms were scheduled to start their refurbishment programme in May 2012, shortly after my visit. However old the schemes may be much of what is there is more than just acceptable. Rooms are large and intelligent design at the outset has given them a longevity not matched by other hotels. However they will need to stretch to match the new rooms coming on stream at hotels such as the Twelve Apostles or POD in Camps Bay both of which are seaside hotels, although without the commanding position of the Plettenberg, both recently refurbished or newly built.

The Plettenberg, South Africa

Bathrooms have baths and showers in most, and again are large, so these are less evidently dated than the bedrooms are. They set a standard that is evidently five star, and one which many European hotels flinch from. Despite the operator identifying the need to upgrade the hotel remains very popular because no-one needs to upgrade its strongest selling point, which is its position. Few other hotels have a view of the sea, whether full of whales or not, like the Plettenberg, and the best of these is probably the previously mentioned McGrath hotel, the Marine in Hermanus.

For many years under Liz McGrath’s leadership these Relais & Chateau branded hotels have provided a benchmark for other hotels in the Republic to measure themselves against. The current world slump has held back the refurbishment programmes that would help to keep them there in the increasingly competitive South African market. Despite this, sun sea and whales which have given Plettenberg its existence, will continue to provide a raison d’etre, and reason for the group to continue the investment it has made over the years

I look forward to returning in the future to see the new rooms, and to update you, kind reader…

Owner developer: Liz McGrath. Design leadership rests with Mrs. McGrath, but as with other strong leaders she has an equally strong team in her interior designers, who are Dawn Dickerson and Carmel Naude of Hotcocoa in Johannesburg. ©Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in March 2012.

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel, Lancashire (Patrick Goff)

999 666 Daniel Fountain

Lancashire can appear a very strange place full of witches and forests as well as seaside towns and industrial centres. In the late 18th & 19th centuries this was the richest corner of our planet.

Towns around here were built on natural resources – small pits still pose a threat occasionally when a driveway or horse will disappear into an unmapped shaft of a small coal mine worked by maybe only two or three men. But coal there was, along with plentiful water, and with a damp atmosphere this trio of resources provided the preconditions for the growth of cotton spinning and weaving.

The towns grew as people flocked from the land to the new high paid jobs in industry and high paid they were initially. The new factory workers gained holidays and factories would close for ‘Wakes Weeks’ which exploited the new phenomenon of the railway to provide mass package tours to exotic destinations like Blackpool and Morecambe. Taking their own food with them for their landlady to prepare whole towns would decamp to the coast – it was said that during ‘Wakes Week’ the only thing that moved in Bolton were the hands on the town hall clock.

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel, Lancashire
Whole families would holiday together and take up lodgings in B&B’s or small seaside hotels. Nowadays the mass travel is to the sun, and despite the ‘Golden Mile’ and its sandy beaches the resorts of the North West lost popularity as their hotels failed to keep up with the standard set by the new resort hotels on the Costas. The story of the last 50 years has been of the struggle and failure of the British hospitality industry to compete for ‘staycationers’ by offering facilities and interiors to match the best of those in warmer locations. A failure compounded by government antipathy, planning obstacles, high taxation etc. etc…

Ribby Hall Holiday Village is an imaginative effort to provide a family holiday environment at a high quality on the Fylde coast just outside Blackpool, and the Spa Hotel is intended to provide a high end luxury highlight in the provision. The whole village boasts a five star rating from Visit Britain but I view this with the same scepticism as I do to the award of five stars to other hotels that have failed to meet the organisations published standards. The antipathy towards hospitality seems to be continuing in the government’s failure to match set UK standards to that of the competition abroad.

Ribby Hall provides a Spa that is superb, well designed and five star. Bedrooms too, are done to very high standards but despite the efforts of the designers the operation itself seems to me to fall short of a true luxury experience comparable say to that of Relais Chateau or the top end InterContinental’s such as Mar Menor – the five stars boasts invite comparison with when raising this standard. It may (or may not) have standards head and shoulders above similar properties in the North West but his kind of parochialism is inappropriate in the hospitality industry and certainly should not be indulged by organisations like Visit Britain if they are to provide credible guidance to overseas tourists.

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel, Lancashire
It may be argued that the clientele for this hotel are local. That may be so but the pull of a good spa reaches across the whole North West, an area with many wealthy individuals who are experiencing the delight of the Ribby Hall Spa weekly but whose standards may be set by the Spa at the Twelve Apostles, or the InterContinental Berchtesgaden. The Spa competes with the best I have seen elsewhere – very different but certainly competitive in its differences, but the question remains does the rest measure up at a five star level? Visit Britain plainly think it does.

The Spa is the centrepiece of the operation. The whole of the building was removed leaving just the facade intact a ‘gut job’ if ever I saw one. The Spa takes up the central part of the building behind the entrance lobby and also has its own entrance to the side, with its own reception desk and car parking. Serving not just the rest of the Village but also (I suspect mainly) a large day spa clientele the Spa is busy and popular. The restaurant to the hotels is mainly a bistro for the Spa but the logic of the bistro and kitchen design has been compromised somewhere during the development.
The kitchen and restaurant are both too small to service the guestrooms adequately and the expectation may be that guest will go to the main restaurant in the Village but this is a very long walk away through Lancashire weather to be an option in a five star operation.

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel, Lancashire
The bistro itself is cramped, and I am baffled how the chef produces such high quality food in a kitchen that is far too tiny and badly planned to do the job. The problem is that the space occupied by Restaurant and bar is divided by access routes and is too small for service to both the day spa customers and the guest in the bedrooms. The restaurant is open on one side to the Spa and pool area so that guests in the spa can order food and sit in the Spa’s own dining area to eat.

That this doesn’t work is shown by the blockade of plant pots the operator has put in place to separate the Spa off from the restaurant . There is a sliding door to separate off the Spa dining area from the main restaurant. Unfortunately at some stage a decision was made to delete one of the kitchen doors and the result is if the sliding door is closed there is no route from the kitchen to the restaurant itself. I suspect the deletion of one of the normal two service doors (one in, one out) was made to increase the available space in the undersized kitchen area.

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel, Lancashire
The bar is in front of the restaurant and guest go through it to reach the dining area, and it also contains the maitre d’ desk. It is also traversed by kitchen staff bringing items from the cold store which the small size of the kitchen is unable to contain. The bar itself is well deigned but the operational compromises make it difficult for it to be a relaxed area for guests to enjoy a drink in. The staff also have their access through the dining area, the door allowing diners to see behind the bar.

All this is hardly five star despite the best efforts of knowledgeable and experienced staff. There are lounge areas opposite the bar but again the passage of guest to bedrooms acts to divide them off from the main bar area. Bedrooms are generously sized but curiously lit. Lighting is adequate and theatrical but leaves areas which are not well lit. For example the single light in the bedroom lobby is positioned so that the wardrobe door casts the wardrobe interior into darkness. Bedside lights make it difficult to read in bed.

The timber floors are, like many do, already marking up from the movement of furniture during housekeeping. Noise transmission and maintenance work against timber and the added comfort underfoot that carpet provides, although initial costs may work in favour of timber.Positioning the bed on a rug over timber provides a happy compromise giving the best of both, but here housekeeping is struggling to find a resolution to the problems they are encountering. The bathrooms are among the best I have seen with a soaking tub and a large walk in shower.

Ribby Hall Spa & Hotel, Lancashire
The end result of all this is a hotel where the Spa works but the rest is compromised. With bedrooms selling in part to spa parties this may not be seen as a problem but as a five star the expectations are that it should serve local businesses that do not have a surfeit of good hotels on their doorstep – businesses like British Aerospace whose main production facility is at nearby Warton. The bedrooms are high standard but without the restaurant and bar functioning efficiently I think the aspiration to serve a wider audience than the Village will be still born.

©Patrick Goff Words and Pictures. From a visit made on the 8th/9th February 2012.

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland (Patrick Goff)

1000 667 Daniel Fountain

The English aristocracy didn’t just build their country houses in England. Scattered across the whole British Isles are grand houses that remind one of the divide between a land owning aristocracy and the rest of us. Nowadays we still see trappings of wealth in large houses but few on the scale of the English country house. These country houses have become famous as the basis of fine hotels, frequently charging such expensive rates that they become the playground of latter day aristocrats.

When a country house is used as the basis for an hotel it often stands apart from the new build sections. At Dunboyne Castle Hotel & Spa, the aristocratic mansion first became a home for nuns; then for a while it served as farm buildings before a six year planning battle (perhaps more English than Irish for its lengthy disputation) finally saw the house incorporated in a new hotel. Incorporated because it is indeed incorporated, not separate from but embraced by the modern structure that hugs its side and rear walls.

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland
The hotel sits in 100 acres of ground next to newly developed commuter homes for Dubliners. The landscaping is a little bleak and the new estate is kept apart through fencing from a rear ‘garden’, an area with a sunken pond and meandering path that sits in a piece of unattractive grassland and car park. More life and vitality, along with possibly more custom for the hotel, might have been generated if the community had been embraced. Instead very formal front landscaping reinforces the separation achieved to the rear. The overall effect is a rather crass new building sitting in a very institutional piece of imitation country house parkland, with the country house standing uneasily alongside.

The institutional feel carried through into an interior spoiled by a mania for cost cutting (see also Irish Hospitality pts 1 & 2) has led to understaffing and other operational ‘savings’. These lead to a visual destruction of good design and poor guest experience alike.

The country house is not central to the interiors, but sits on the side of the modern interiors. Much of the lighting was turned off, creating an uninviting feel which serves to help keep the country house section feeling closed. Its rooms are beautiful and deserve to be fully utilised, instead of which they are kept for weddings and the smaller business meetings. Most of the new building extends to the rear with a magnificent and very large spa. Function rooms and exhibition areas are centrally placed continuing to one side whilst the bedroom block goes off on the other side. From the front the old mansion house is treated with grace and sensitivity but from the back it is lost, its Georgian proportions hidden by the new buildings.

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland

Internally the junction between old and new is again handled well architecturally but is let down by the lighting. I find it difficult to make up my mind whether the lighting is badly designed in the public area or whether management practices which dictate leaving lights off are to blame for the lack of sparkle in these area. The corridor alongside the bar lounge and the old mansion is top lit by daylight, but the lighting in the adjacent spaces is left off it seems in daylight, making the whole area uninviting. I have heard some Irish operators blame the green hotel policies of the Irish government, but this is hotly disputed by the agency concerned and seems more to do with management using any excuse in a difficult market to keep lights off to cut costs. It makes the spaces very unattractive to guests, robbing them of life as the comparative images of the reception area show.

In the old house, with its glorious public rooms, the lack of lighting is a deterrent to guests using the spaces. However the impact of this approach is shown in the bar operations. With so much of the income generated for the hotel now coming from functions, I noted one evening when there was a large wedding reception on the lower bar/bistro closed as staff were seemingly diverted to service the wedding and its bar upstairs.

The physical separation of the bedrooms from the function area does not insulate them from noise either. The outside terraces into the function rooms allow noise transmission and a number of guests commented on this happening in the early hours of the morning when presumably the terrace doors are thrown open to encourage function guests to leave quickly. The artwork is all reproduction Vettriano prints – love’em or loath’em this is the 21st century equivalent of Trechikov, supposedly the most reproduced artist of the 20th century. Like the artwork, the colour scheme is bland and inoffensive but rooms are well lit, all the switches in the right place, and many with balconies and opening windows.

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland
There is a good sized work desk and large mirrors, together with a dining table and chairs meeting criteria for five star rating (unlike some hotels in the UK I have seen recently which fail to meet Visit Britain five star standards yet are given a five star rating – I wonder how?).

Here where inspection is tight and a hotel has to meet certain criteria before it can even be called an hotel, the generous room size would embarrass many London hotels who are second rate by comparison. The UK is increasingly out of step with European rating practise and moves now adopted by nine countries to harmonise standards. The suggestion by UK ministers that TripAdvisor should be used is risible. These rooms are well sized and fitted out and offer free WiFi too.

I say the bedrooms are almost the best part of this hotel, because they are second to a beautifully designed sumptuous Seoid (meaning Jewel) spa area over three floors. It claims to be one of the most luxurious spas in Ireland, and this I can believe. It has all the usual therapies, but also includes a full razul experience. The whole area is well lit and doesn’t suffer from the cheap ‘energy saving’ approach characterising the rest of the hotel. Instead it creates the ambience and luxury to be expected in a top quality spa. The lighting sparkles where it needs to and is subtle where warmth and relaxation are the key. The location of the hotel, close to Dublin but out in the country, makes the spa a good draw and there are also several leading golf courses within a few minutes drive.

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland
The spa reaches over three floors and includes a slightly bleak outdoor whirlpool. The indoor pool is nicely designed (apart from the intrusion of the columns). Interior designers really should whip the architects and structural engineers into line as so many interiors are spoiled by columns being unnescessarily visually intrusive. The outdoor areas really don’t work here. It is almost as if they are awaiting further development. More planting would help keep down noise and add colour to the rear, sorely missed in the views from the bedrooms. For such a luxury spa the outdoor whirlpool is functional rather than indulgent.

Treatment rooms are well designed and offer a range of treatments, whilst relaxation areas are warm and womb like, supporting the therapies offered. There are stylish touches throughout the hotel that combat the slightly institutional feel created by the architecture and landscaping. For example, the staircase down to the sports bar/bistro has been turned into a seating area by simple addition of a sylish throne chair and a small banquette seat. The lighting is the key to all these areas and with it turned off there is a gloom pervading that robs the hotel of the theatre and sparkle it deserves.

Couple this with understaffing (and the staff here are very, very good) and the whole guest experience is downgraded. The sports bar/bistro staff appeared to be transferred to service a wedding bar on my second night so it was closed. The second bar, a snug Irish pub, was deserted – like the Marie Celeste abandoned to voyage alone.

Dunboyne Castle Hotel, Ireland

This is a well designed hotel, seemingly caught up in the recessionary pressures that characterise so many Irish hotels and which management is fighting with desperate measures. The ‘coming out balls’ are a great saviour of hotels all over Ireland at the end of the school year it seems, but the view of many in the industry is that there are 30% too many hotel rooms in Ireland.

With over 100 of 900 hotels basically in the hands of the receivers, tourism here will need to recover a long way to turn the hotel economy around. Dunboyne has the location and the Spa, plus nearby golf courses which will makes this one of the flourishing survivors if the short term management solutions being applied don’t deter the well-heeled punters it needs to attract.

© Words & Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in August 2011

Grischa Hotel, Davos - Switzerland

Hotel Grischa, Davos – Switzerland (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

I don’t ski. I have this image of gliding out onto the slope and slowly sinking into the snow as my weight proves too heavy for the skis (heavy bones you see). So the Alps and their frequent deep snowfalls are not really my scene.

However, the Alps in the summer were something else. The week before I was in Davos they had a foot of snow, but in the unseasonably hot autumn when I drove up the mountain, it was gone. The Alps were green and the skies blue with patches of white lingering where the sun didn’t reach. The roads twisted and turned up the slopes, each bend opening another vista of beauty – grassy slopes unmarked by hedges or fences and behind grim rocky peaks reaching upwards into the crystal clear air.

Small towns and villages are linked by the roads, although new dual carriageways are being carved, drilled and constructed to bypass them. These roads attract motorcyclists and driving teams such as that led by Jeremy Clarkson (BBC TV programme, Top Gear), who like the thrill of driving around hairpin bends. The Swiss of course enjoy their famous efficient rail system which seems to manage to run whatever the weather throws onto the line.

Although Davos straggles along the valley, the Grischa is in prime position right across the road from the railway station linking it to Klosters, a short ride down the hill. Convenient though the rail head is, the hotel was chosen for Top Gear HQ because one of the attributes of the hotel is its garage parking. As much as Davos can be said to have a centre, the Grischa is it. Just along from the Town Hall, opposite the rail station and across the road from the new police station, none of these will prove its prime attraction. No, the prime attraction is its position at the bottom of the main ski lift up the mountains.

Grischa Hotel, Davos - Switzerland
This entire area is littered with ski lifts, but the ones opposite the Grischa operate all year round. In summer they are used by walkers and paragliders who take the lifts to the top of the mountain to hurl themselves off into the void. Repeatedly. Me? I feel the same way about paragliding as skiing – put me on one and it will fold up and plummet to the ground…

Grischa is not a refurbishment. This is a major reconstruction with a new building added to increase the restaurant, bar and bedroom provision and the rebuild of the existing hotel. The building uses local materials – Swiss stone, timber and finishes generally. From the stone and timber in the reception to the polished stone panels that are so attractive in the bathrooms, this creates a harmony throughout the building, reinforced by good lighting design.

The finishes are well thought through from a practical standpoint not just aesthetically. The stone floors in the the entrance lobby work in snow whilst in the bedrooms there are not only coat hooks for outerwear but plastic mats for snow boots to be placed on, allowing thaw water to be kept away from carpets. Psychological warmth is also created with open fires in public areas with stacks of logs next to them to emphasise the visual warmth created, whilst dark corridors also reinforce the womb-warmth of the hotel interiors.

In the bedrooms the fabric walls with their striking bold patterns and small decorative gimps enhance the feeling that the bedroom embraces the guest. Rooms are large with a high proportion of one and two bedroom suites. This is a luxury hotel aware of the two or three weeks guaranteed occupancy as the world’s great and good (maybe terms that need revision in view of the number of bankers involved) come to the annual Davos Economic Forum. Meeting the standards demanded by the politicos and others may be a driver, but Switzerland also hosts some of the world’s wealthiest skiers (the British Royals use Klosters just down the valley) so standards are appropriately high.

Grischa Hotel, Davos - Switzerland
The 55 rooms and 38 suites vary from generously sized single rooms through to the 1300 sq foot ‘presidential suite’. Whilst fabric walls feature in some rooms others have a digitally produced timber wallpaper and in the larger suites the open fires of the reception lobby are reiterated. Swiss production is expensive as the currency is considered a ‘safe haven’ from the Euro and other currencies (I’m told Friday evenings banks stay open late as the Italians etc. come over the borders to deposit their weeks takings into Swiss francs rather than keep them in riskier Euros). The Swiss will buy Swiss rather than go for a cheaper option (like the British), so toiletries and casegoods alike are manufactured in Switzerland with the traditional solid Swiss quality. It is not just the stone that has been chosen because it is Swiss.

Open fires and clever lighting – almost under lighting – are reinforced by fur throws and fur cushions on the beds. Gold liners are used on the lampshades to ensure a warm light is thrown too, adding to the perceived warmth in the room. Curtains are heavy and blackout lined but the windows, despite the air conditioning, open and many rooms have balconies too.

Bathrooms generally have both a shower and a bathtub. Again they are quite dark. White ceramic is used for the sanitary ware but the stone is a local granite, very attractive in its finish. The smooth slabs are used in large pieces and there is underfloor heating to continue the sybaritic feel. There are heated towel rails too and the high quality soaps and unguents are all Swiss made (and expensive, the manager added!)…

Grischa Hotel, Davos - Switzerland
Despite its central location the hotel is quiet and the restaurants and bars are all on the front of the hotel with terraces that face the mountains across the road and rail lines. Here are the places to see and be seen. I would say places for Friday night millionaires, which they would be if this was Lancashire, but here in fashionable Davos, it is more likely to be MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday-night millionaires…

Among the hotel restaurants is a quality Chinese restaurant, beautifully designed in black with gold lanterns; a bistro; bars as well as the main
restaurant. Again the use of sophisticated, slight under-lighting allied to candle light creates atmosphere and superb dining environments. The sophistication of the design ensures there is a harmony of design throughout the hotel so the restaurants are not a sudden change in ambience, but a reiteration of the results achieved elsewhere in guest areas.

Switzerland is a country made up of cantons with three languages spoken widely (German, Italian and French) and where decisions made by politicians only become law if voted in by a majority in a referendum. This has apparently led to the rejection of a statutory Disabilities Discrimination Act. It is up to the hotel to decide on its DDA policy, but the designers have made sure that all of the Grischa is accessible and there is DDA provision in the bedroom and bathroom provision.

Grischa Hotel, Davos - Switzerland

Grischa is a beautifully designed hotel. Finishes such as the stone and timber in both the public and guest areas could have created a harshness in the interiors, but which actually creates a harmonious and comfortable atmosphere. There are strong similarities in quality, signage and finishes between the Hotel Gricha and InterContinental’s Berchtesgaden property. Much as that property succeeded in creating for me a sense of excitement at the quality of the design, so Grischa achieves the same. This a beautifully tailored hotel that, although unfinished at my visit, promises to become one of the top hotels in my list of places to go back to. After over ten years of writing about hotels, and before that 25 years designing them, it takes a lot to impress my somewhat jaded palette. Grischa (and Davos too) has achieved that.

I can see why our political economic masters like to meet bankers and industsrialists annually in Davos with hotels such as the quality of Grischa to stay in, the beauty of the surounding landscape and skiing whilst they are here too. The only thing the hotel lacks is a guillotine for chopping off their bonuses.

Words and most pictures © Patrick Goff. Where pictures are not my copyright they are copyright the Grischa.

Shibden Mill Inn, Yorkshire

Shibden Mill Inn, Yorkshire (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

This is one of those accidental Reviews. They happen when a stay en-route to a targeted hotel or for some other reason finds me staying in an interesting hotel (in this case an Inn) by random chance. Shibden Mill was local to my hosts, Andy Thornton, when I was writing their Company Profile for the DesignClub. Pub/hotels are an interesting phenomenon that I have written about before (notably recently the Alma, one of Wandsworth’s Youngs Brewery hotels). Often the food is overrated, and rooms fail to compete with standard hotels. However the independently owned Shibden Mill is one of a growing number of properties, like the Alma, which are exceptions to these generalisations.

If you didn’t know about Shibden Mill, you would never find it. Saying it’s just outside Halifax in West Yorkshire is not a lot of help. My navigator started to doubt the satnav as we plunged down narrower and narrower cobbled tracks – she has reason, as Volkswagen once told me I couldn’t expect detailed accuracy as the ‘UK is on the periphery of Europe’. However we have come to habitually drive with very little by way of back-up maps so on this occasion we had no option but to follow directions scrupulously down into the secret valley in which the Mill nestles.

Shibden Mill Inn, Yorkshire
It was a Mill once, in the 17th Century, about the time settlers were landing on the coast of the Americas. The mill and its attached barns have been subsumed into the adjacent hostelry, creating 11 en-suite bedrooms, a reception and small guest lounge quite separate from the pub. Tucked away in a fold of the Shibden valley it has been extended and converted by the owners, Simon and Caitlin Heaton, steadily over the years. In that statement lies the dichotomy of pubs as hotels.

Pubs like the Alma benefit from the investment power of major operators. Its £2.5million (at current rates about $4million) cost has produced a 26 bedroom hotel with a pub/restaurant attached. Professionally designed, executed and managed it was able to employ expertise in both design and operation denied to most owner occupiers. Shibden Mill Inn is a conversion of love by owners who have steadily over years put heart and soul into creating a property that reflects design in its more domestic form, but where the passion for comfort, service and food provides the guest with an experience that the major operators struggle to emulate.

So is it good design? Is it worth a Review, if it is domestic? Well it isn’t domestic – it just lacks the panache that maybe (and it is a maybe) a professional designer would have given it. Too often a professional designer would have been employed on professional fees only to produce a result that would not have matched what the owners have created here. So why does this work? What made me want to write about it? The simple answer is that the operational philosophy has driven the design. Shibden Mill Inn is an evolution – unlike the Alma which was a major reconstruction. The true comparative for this might be the Manor House in Dronfield, but the smaller public spaces there have not allowed the kind of old fashioned sinking into luxury feel that has been arrived at here. In part the space has allowed the luxury, indeed is the main luxury. In part it is a triumph for local sourcing – not just of beers, but of food and of furniture. Some of it came via a close embrace of the local vernacular.

Shibden Mill Inn, Yorkshire

The public areas have struck a fine balance between the food and hotel operation and the very local feel to the bars, with the pub quiz a live feature (note – pub quizzes are ferociously competitive. I once was part of a team of 2 PhD ‘s and 2 Masters graduates which came a notable last in a pub quiz). Yet there is little encroachment one on the other, and the relative sizes seem well balanced – the dining obviously attracts a wide clientele from the area. The spaces are fluid, making both formal and informal dining areas that merge in the evening with no apparent dividers, and which enables the space to be relaxed for the award winning breakfasts in the morning – this pub boast an award from Visit England in 2011 for serving the Best English Breakfast,a ‘full English’, an accolade which will appeal to many readers I know.

Some famous London dining rooms with a reputation for their breakfasts (in part because of the scribes that dine there) would give their eye teeth to serve the home made black pudding served in Shibden Mill. Not that I write about food of course.

Herouvimska Pessen
The eclectic mix of period furniture works within the half-timbered space, the blackened oak and white plasterwork set off here and there with strong wall colour washes, and strong upholstery colour. There are no modernist surprises here, just the re-emphasis of the traditional pub atmosphere in a very popular fine-dining setting. The eclectic styling gives visual interest, an ocular background noise like an echoing conversation so that the interior provides visual as well as other sensory comfort. The eleven bedrooms (one of which could be described as a suite) too are given up to sensory comfort. Their design treatment aims to keep the feel of the antique, with exposed beams and stonework, and an eclectic mix of furniture. Their sizes vary enormously, depending on which of the converted buildings they are in. All connect via meandering corridors with the restaurant and bar, although there is no need for guests to come and go via the bar or restaurant as there is a separate hotel entrance.

All the touchstones are here – free Wi-Fi, flat screen TV’s, good sized desks, bath tubs with shower over, although occasionally room has been found for a separate shower. All are away from the bar so quiet, and although they overlook the car park this is rural Yorkshire, not boy racer land, so sound intrusion is minimal. The rooms have obviously been done at different times and as the owners have gained confidence the design treatment has improved. However whilst I would change nothing over the treatment of the restaurant and bar, which both work operationally and are redolent of local traditions, the bedrooms lack the panache that characterises those at the Alma. Character charm works for them however, and the latest room, a suite with its own balconied external area is handled more boldly.

Herouvimska Pessen
There is a widespread fear that designers are expensive to use, but not every hotelier is able to put together interiors that work. A good designer should be able to save his fee on many budgets by their knowledge of the discount structure in the contract market. Yes if you go to a designer ‘shoppe’ you may well pay full retail, but no good hotel design studio will turn down the opportunity to work on ten rooms and will work on a professional fee basis. Our Directory contains a list of professionals who provide such services and can be trusted to be honest and straight forward in their dealings. If in doubt do consult the Editor who will be happy to assist with advice and recommendation on a suitable designer for your property.

The latest rooms show the growing confidence here. The planning is good, and the treatment of the interior harks back to medieval finishes with stone walling and the use of a four poster bed. Spaces in a building of this age can be very difficult to handle with beams and posts appearing in seemingly irrational positions relating to their previous use. One room has a very high window and a roof light – it used to be a hayloft and store so had not openings in the wall suitable for windows lower down. The solution adopted works and the room is light and airy.

The Inn does not set out to be a style statement but a new rendition of a traditional comfortable Inn. In the public areas it transcends this in part by its exceptional food and focus on local produce, but also by its sympathetic treatment of the restaurant which succeeds in being separate from but very much a part of the bar. The bedrooms also work well. Even if bedrooms feel a little dated conceptually the same focus on guest comfort given to the public areas makes them a very competitive offering for someone looking for a place to stay with a little more character as well as an exceptional food offering at a price considerably less than a four star hotel would normally cost.

All this in an attractive location, quiet, sylvan. If you can find it…

Designers and Owners: Simon and Caitlin Heaton. From a Visit in August 2011

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

The owner lives on the other side of the bay, looking on to his hotel, or at least the Victorian seaside hotel that was there. When he saw the proposed plans for its replacement, he didn’t like it. Refusing to spend his evenings looking at something unsightly, he bought the site and had Cliff House Hotel built. Wouldn’t we all do the same?

The result is a beautifully located stylish new five star hotel with architecture that spills down the hillside and cliffs, belying its seven floors with a roof line the same as the surrounding villas. Its location places the hotel in close contact with the sea. I was there in calm weather and I would imagine during a storm with high seas it must provide a wonderful experience. In calm weather it is possible to follow the path through the gardens to stand on the rocks and if the weather is warm enough, to even go swimming off them.

The link with the sea is followed through by the layout of the building which gives all the rooms sea views, some with seating areas in windows or on balconies overlooking the water. From across the bay, where the owner lives, the hotel is discrete. Interestingly, just a little further around the bay in which Ardmore is situated is a group of mobile homes, apparently places where rich Dubliners bring their families for the summer, giving the hotel large groups of ‘ladies that lunch’ to fill its bistro and Michelin starred restaurant.

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland
During my trip to Ireland I saw many hotels that were in trouble – indeed NAMA, the Irish national ‘bad bank’ has nearly 100 of Irelands 900 odd hotels on its books (see articles). In the rotten economic climate Irelands bankers contributed to, it is all the more remarkable that the Cliff House became profitable in its third year and now in its fourth year it is becoming even more successful.

Part of the hotel’s success is its emphasis on service and the food offering, something enabled by the architecture which includes a greenhouse for the cook as well as a small garden area. Ireland is predominantly an agricultural nation and this hotel, unlike many, makes maximum use of local sourcing of both the produce from the land and the sea. It has a Michelin star for its restaurant but judging by difficulty in securing a table there, its bistro offering is enormously popular too.

The bar bistro shares a large terrace with the restaurant running along the sea front of the hotel, which more than doubles the available seating in summer and looks across the bay. Below the restaurant terrace are the gardens which provide intimate little ‘secret’ seating areas, but also hold part of the Spa which is on the floor below, with both the whirlpool bath and the seaweed treatment baths sitting out on their own terraces. Internally the bistro mixes formality and informality well. There is a comfortable seating area in front of an open fire and bar stools to the bar as well as more formal dining. Dining tables look out through the windows that fill one wall floor to ceiling maximising the view again.

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland

The planning ensures that the kitchen and wine cellar service both the main restaurant and the bistro. The placing of all the service areas, delivery points and other non-guest areas on the rear, inland, side of the hotel ensures that guests enjoy continuous uninterrupted views of the sea from virtually everywhere they go in the hotel. It also preserves the striking architectural area that follows the cliff face down to the sea entirely for guests. The site planning has been meticulous and has served both hotelier and guest well.

Entering the hotel the guest is presented with a view to the sea immediately, looking right through the reception area. The reception area is part of a large atrium space which reaches from the top of the hotel to the restaurant floor, over three floors. On the top floor it forms a guest library lounge giving access to bedroom corridor. Here the lounges of suites are on the rear of the hotel but the suites all are over two floors with balconies off the bedrooms providing space for loungers and private dining as well as spectacular views.

The hotel interiors were done largely by the owners and they have amassed the largest collection of colonial campaign furniture in Ireland which are used as feature pieces throughout the hotel. However, it is the architecture and layout that are the strengths of the interiors. Colour is used cleverly throughout and reinforces the sense of movement through space, such as in the changing hues on the stair carpets, but always it is the views, changing light and sense of contact with the ocean that dominates. The duplex suites are a clever use of the space at the rear of the reception floor, making the guestroom lounges quiet to the rear and keeping the bedrooms with the views, adding deep terraces where dining and sun lounging in privacy are enabled.

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland
The beds are positioned so that the view is seen easily through the large balcony access windows and the bathroom puts the shower in the window too, whilst bathrooms throughout deliver both shower and soaking tubs. The resulting glass walls flood the bathroom with light. This is the case with the glass wall in the bedroom too, but the blackout is effective at night. Rooms in the duplex are large and have their own dining and lounge areas. The campaign furniture works well in these, and specially commissioned artwork graces their internal staircases.

Interestingly the hotel has gone back to brass keys on large key fobs as they found the €8 cost of replacing the smart cards used in the electronic proximity locking system prohibitive as many guests still erroneously believe the cards encode personal details and take them away with them. The weight and presence of the brass keys leads to them being returned rather than remaining secreted in purses or wallets.

In the standard bedrooms there is variety of room layout and colour and all deliver a good sized desk (with free Wi-Fi of course), bay window with window seat or a fireplace, where on rainy days (and there are many in Ireland) guests can enjoy the views or relax without the temptations of the superb gourmet food experience the hotel offers. With all the bedrooms on the seaward side of the hotel, all guests are guaranteed a sea view. I was there in the summer, but a part of me wanted to stay during an Atlantic winter storm as the position of the hotel on the cliff edge must make this a spectacular experience for a guest – with the reassurance and comfort of Michelin food and wines and open fires in the public areas! The appeal of this hotel must, in part, be down to the ability to be on the large terraces in the sunshine and fresh air, but to retreat into comfortable internal spaces with all the cosseting by staff and service within seconds. This warm, encompassing, physical comfort is also a hallmark of the spa and leisure areas.

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland

The entrance to the Spa and its reception are at the bottom of the spiral staircase that runs throughout the atrium. Here the space is internal, creating the initial calm controlled environment that every spa wants to exude on entry. From there it leads to the leisure and spa treatment areas.
The design of these areas then maximises the views of the ocean. Treadmills look out through picture windows to the sea. Similarly the pool has one end of glass to give clear views of the ocean. Treatment rooms, which need no daylight, are positioned to leave corridors with the views and the relaxation zone gives the couches different heights to view the ocean. Only here are there problems, with changing floor levels creating trip points marked out by hi-vis tape, a jarring note in an otherwise harmonious set of interiors.

As with the restaurants and bedrooms, the spa and leisure areas spill out onto the terraces with the spa pool and some treatment areas being places on sun-trap terraces. Despite their locations below most of the hotel it is surprising how private many of these areas are. Running below them all is the path through the gardens, again with secretive little areas for taking in the sun and views.

Cliff House Hotel, Ireland

The hotel makes magnificent use of its location. The architectural layout has maximised the relationship with the sea. Location is more than just a seaside hotel in this instance, as Ardmore is a place of pilgrimage, being closely linked with the history of Christianity in Ireland. Within a few hundred metres are some of the earliest Christian sites, making the hotel visibility in the village a critical factor in how the architecture has been treated. Whilst visible from the water, the a fact that most of the site tumbles down the cliff means it has a low profile visually and a low roof line that all relate to the village cottages.

Communities are sensitive to large scale hotel developments which can sometime despoil a community. Here the 39 bedroom hotel has brought employment to the village and enhanced it as a destination, without being destructive visually. Maybe more hotels would benefit from the owner living with it in the vista from their houses…

Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff. From a visit in August 2011

Kyriad, Epinal, France

Kyriad, Epinal, France (Patrick Goff)

600 261 Daniel Fountain

Louvre Hotels Group brands are known to generations of UK travellers through France. My first visit to a Campanile in the 1980’s amused me. I watched travel-experienced Brits taking their own pillows to their rooms to use instead of the traditional French bolster. Thirty years on and the Louvre Hotels Group has undergone major change.

In 2005 Barry Sternlicht, the brain behind the revamp of Starwood and the introduction of the ‘W’ bought Louvre Hotels through his Starwood Capital investment arm and set about modernising and growing the Group. Sternlicht has enlarged Louvre Hotels acquiring Golden Tulip hotels as well as a number of luxury five star hotels, making Louvre Hotels Group the tenth largest hotel group globally with 1,000 hotels in 40 countries.

Kyriad is the two/three star brand within the group. Established in 2000 there are now 220 hotels with 12,700+ rooms in the brand and as with Campanile they have been redefined and over 30% have now been brought up to the new standard.

Kyriad, Epinal, France
Kyriad claims to be a guarantee of quality. In the past many British tourists would avoided an hotel at this level in France as they have been very poor. Kyriad challenges this perception, intending the brand to stand for quality with the “charm of variety” (as Camille Sassi, the brand manager describes it). Certainly, the quality achieved in approximately the 14 square metre rooms of the Kyriad Epinal I stayed in indicates that this challenge is being met.

To many UK tourists the idea of a French hotel with a TCMF will be a novelty, especially at the budget level. To have free Wifi only enhances the experience. Prices are comparable with Travelodge and garage parking is also available. At the Epinal Kyriad, in a tiny space the designer has managed to create a compact but comfortable room. The toilet is separate from the shower-room and the and the shower itself contains a powerful handset as well as a rainhead delivering good pressure and a very acceptable showering experience – far superior to that at some four star brands.

Also superior to some four star brands is the thinking in the creation of the room. It is a tiny space but the designer has managed to create a good work desk, a luggage rack and a wardrobe. The robe provides two separate hanging spaces the longer allowing wet outer garments to be separated from items such as shirts.

Kyriad, Epinal, France
Lighting is energy saving but ample, with good sized reading lamps at the bedhead. Lighting and extraction in the bathroom is also good, and the bathroom has ample shelf space for toiletries, again unlike some more prestigious hotels. Corridor lighting is on motion sensors and maximum use is made of daylight without losing the sparkle that artificial lighting can bring to public areas.

A new lift shaft added to the rear of the building with the connection points with the corridors and staircase used to increase areas for housekeeping stores. Public areas include a bistro, unfortunately closed at weekends in Epinal (except for breakfast) but well priced and attractive. There is a small bar in the public areas where local and French national newspapers are also provided.

This hotel was a shock, but a good one. I booked it as a stop on the drive back specifically because I wanted to see the impact on the brand that the acquisition by Starwood Capital may have had. As with Campanile, the change is a revelation. Brand standards are high, and as the ambitious growth plans are rolled out (an additional 70 hotels are being opened in 2011 across the group, a dozen in India alone) then the new standards will make hotels further up in the ratings system look to their own standards.

Skillful design added to clear standards works even in a small space. I look forward to having the opportunity to look at the bigger brother, Kyriad Prestige, as well as other Louvre Hotels branded properties in the future.

From a visit in October 2011. Words and pictures Copyright Patrick Goff

Hilton Cardiff, Wales

Hilton Cardiff, Wales (Patrick Goff)

1000 750 Daniel Fountain

The hotel market in Cardiff has boomed. Most of the major chains are now present, and the City has bloomed under devolved government, tourism developing as the waterfront and other developments have increased its attractiveness. The city always had an impressive city centre. The civic government offices are amongst the most beautiful in Europe. The location of the Hilton makes it almost a part of the Civic Centre area and it is a natural choice for guests linked to Welsh national events, as we saw on this second visit. The Argentinean rugby team was headquartered in the Hotel, making full use of its health club and spa (as OH observed though, looking too small physically to be a threat to the Welsh team).

Some of the effects of developments in the town have been negative for hotels – for example, the arrival of restaurant chains such as Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie’s Italian’. This has raised the level of competition for the food spend, and numerous bars and restaurants provide guests with an alternative eating and drinking experience wider than that which was available in the early years of this century. Combined with an economic downturn, as marked here as anywhere else, competition is intensifying.

On my last visit, I commented on the excellence of the maintenance programme. The owners have completed a soft refurbishment and the entrance areas have been redesigned and refurbished. I met with the hotel and heard about their forthcoming major refurbishment plans.

Hilton Cardiff, Wales
There are wrinkled brows as to how the hotel is to compete within the food and drink market in Cardiff. As the doorman pointed out to me, the rate of new openings was such that the same market was being pulled from one new venue to another. I have seen this phenomenon before, strangely, in Carlisle in Cumbria. There a pub refurbishment could guarantee the pub an enthusiastic crowd until a competitor refurbished, at which point the crowd would move to the renewed venue. This seems to be beginning to happen in Cardiff, with the followers of fashion providing the audience. Whilst the main restaurant food offering in the hotel is of a high standard, and the superb location opposite Cardiff Castle and adjacent to the Civic Centre makes competing for evening and lunchtime business easier, attracting the lunch time and passing tourist trade into an hotel to eat is difficult.
The opening up of the bar to the reception area has provided a much more welcoming entrance area for the hotel. It appears to be successful as a social area in the hotel, and as a meeting zone, but the secondary restaurant is now restricted in its opening times. Whilst the bar and main restaurant have high visibility, the secondary restaurant, the Steam Bar, suffers from a low street presence along with a low visibility within the hotel.

Hilton’s policy on Wi-Fi access allows free access through BT Hotspots in the public areas, but this is a poor service as the free bit is largely limited to BT customers. When competing coffee shops offer a fast free service this again puts the hotel at a competitive disadvantage unless the guest is in a business room, where the Wi-Fi is free and use of the business lounge allows access to the same free Wi-Fi system.

Hilton Cardiff, Wales
The use of hotel lobby and dining services for informal business meetings is increasingly determined by the diner being able to use the tablet or laptop computer to access the web whilst in a luncheon meeting. Equally, the use of hotel public areas for informal business meetings requires a similar open access system for success. BT’s system falls short for people who are not already BT subscribers.

The hotel is well maintained and housekeeping is of a high standard. A soft refurb of fabrics and carpet has kept the bedroom areas looking contemporary, and they are competitive with other hotels. The rooms are large and the original design by KCA has been long lived. The bathrooms, which in my initial Review I considered a little less than luxurious despite their size are now the focus for the next upgrade programme, complicated by the fact that the large showers are not on the main service duct. Having the main plumbing services coming through the service duct to the bedroom makes not only maintenance easier but simplifies upgrades. Here the large curved shower walls contain the plumbing for the showers, making upgrade that bit more difficult without major works.

Hilton’s approach to design management appears strange to me, as they do not maintain relationships with their design practices. The original designer was Khuan Chew of KCA, a leading interior design practitioner, famous for her work on the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s famous ‘sail’ hotel. Hilton have not maintained a relationship with the practice apparently (I was told) because Khuan Chew did not do all the presentations herself. Expecting the head of a practice to do all the presentations seems to be a common client perception and I wonder whether Mr Foster, Mr Gehry or Mr Piano are expected to do all their presentations themselves?

Hilton Cardiff, Wales
It is not surprising that there is inconsistency, indeed incoherence, in design management at the major brands. At Marriott, for example, the bathrooms in the Renaissance Paddington are no match for those in the Marriott West Quay – why the variation? Why the apparent lack of trust Hilton place in their design list, epitomised by their failure to develop superb concepts such as that of the Hilton Diagonal Mar or Chicago’s Doubletree, the Wit into lifestyle brands instead of poaching ideas from other companies. At least at Hilton one cannot question the operational standards, and Cardiff demonstrates why they are such a consistent performer in the business market. The food is good, the interiors work well and the staff is well trained and efficient. As a first stage in bedroom refurbishment a major ‘presidential’ suite has been created (see the video).

The hotel does not attempt to be a boutique, and those looking for a boutique sense of funky style may be better staying at the Big Sleep down the road, but there is undoubted high quality here. There is an excellent small spa along with a Living Well gym operation and a swimming pool. It may be that the future for the Steam Bar is to become a part of the hotels pampering operation rather than trying to compete with the other food operations, or maybe it could become an adjunct to the already popular business services, oriented around serving the informal meeting market more formally. Perhaps a relationship over years with a designer who grew to know Cardiff and its market might have helped the hotel to judge how to balance its offering in the local market better, although with very high occupancy rates the marketing team and the owner have obviously positioned their hotel standards in the right place.

Hilton Cardiff, Wales
In difficult economic conditions Hilton seem to me to be getting their offerings pitched at the right level. As I will show further with the forthcoming Review of Hilton Liverpool, the chain is pitching as a very good four star, with business rooms offering enough to be almost five star in scale and nature of the offering to the guest. The group may be regarded by many designers as very ‘middle of the road’ but their operational standards and criteria seem to me to be right on the ball. If their design managers were equally able to exploit the quality many of their designers demonstrate, then the brand could not just be a leading business brand, but also lead the way in the lifestyle market.

Cardiff, with its upcoming refurbishment programme, could potentially become a test-bed. The rooms are large. The franchisee cares enough to be that rare owner who refurbishes and maintains the property in an exemplary manner. The operational team is experienced and eager. Perhaps, drawing on the Wit experience, the new design management team at Hilton will be bold enough to step once more towards creating a leading lifestyle brand experience.

From a visit in September 2011. Words and images © Patrick Goff

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa

Chapman’s Peak, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Whilst football is often said to be a game of two halves, Chapmans Peak hotel, known popularly locally simply as ‘Chappies’, is a hotel of two halves. On the left is the original pub much changed since it was built in 1903, whilst on the right is the new four star bedroom extension complete with suites, balconied bedrooms and the most amazing views across Hout Bay. When in Cape Town I stay in Hout Bay and it was then I was taken to the Chapmans Peak hotel as the best place to eat in the area.

My companions were being guided to their table on the large and busy outdoor terrace dining area when I spied a bright red spot of colour inside the hotel. “Aha!” I thought, “someone with a sense of style” and wandered off to look (always curious you see).

A single flower on a table in the centre of a space reminded me in a way of the entrance to the Hempel in London where the same flower was used in serried ranks to create impact. Here simplicity won the eye, and sparked further my curiosity. It was a good half hour later that I rejoined my hosts at their table. Ooops!

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa
From there I became involved, gave advice and tracked the development of the hotel over the following couple of years. Chapmans has been in the same family for years, along with a neighbouring wine distribution service. It is a popular bistro/pub with a menu focussed on local, especially seafood, products. In an elevated position it has a spectacular view across Hout Bay, and stands at the bottom of the road that clings to the cliffs as it winds away around the end of Africa towards the Simonstown naval base.

Originally built in 1903, some of the original building remains evident in fireplaces and lounges – fireplaces that are necessary in the South African winter months when rain clouds can hug the coast – apparently Cape Town only has 60 days a year without a sea mist or cloud cover for some of the time. Hout Bay is a corruption of Houtbaaii, meaning ‘bay of wood’ as in the 18th century this is where much shipbuilding took place using local timber.
A new entrance and underground secure car parking were created as a part of the new construction, organised and overseen by the owner. The rock face against which the hotel sits was incorporated into the new entrance lobby with the front a simple glass screen cut into the rock wall. With two levels coming into the lobby from the garage and the street entrance along with the linking to the previously existing building this is a complex space well handled by the architects. Lit with locally manufactured chandeliers it is contemporary but not in conflict with the previous reception lobby.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa

The transition from modern to antique is accomplished smoothly, in part eased by the different dates of the various parts of the previously existing 10 bedrooms and meeting rooms. The addition of the two suites and 22 new luxurious and spacious new bedrooms, all with balconies, has transformed the pub into an hotel. The owners recognise this and will continue to refurbish the dining areas, which currently seat over a hundred comfortably, on a large covered terrace in the summer or in front of open fires in winter.

Like the Alma in Wandsworth this transition is based on a very healthy income from the food and beverage operation, making the economics of expansion relatively straightforward to calculate. In expanding the bedroom operation, again similar to the Alma, the standard of the whole operation has lifted. The friendliness and welcome, previously a recognised part of the operation, hasn’t changed though and the staff obviously enjoy the new range of facilities and guests but continue to work with personality and enthusiasm. Some have been at the hotel for many years and plainly feel they ‘belong’.

The style of the restaurant and bars is traditional with white linen and china providing a sparkling contrast to timber. For ten months of the year diners will prefer the outside terrace with its views over the bay, but in the winter mornings breakfast is served in front of open fires in the restaurant. In winter months dinner too is a candle lit convivial affair in front of open fires.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa
The old main entrance to the hotel has become a restaurant and bar entrance with the new reception having an off road pull-in. Parking was always a problem at Chappies, and the new provision is welcome. The old bedrooms have their own charm as does their balcony but the new rooms and suites are a huge step forward for the hotel. The two rooftop suites have deep private balconies with external showers, lounges with their own fireplaces etc.

The new bedrooms all have balconies, with those on the back of the hotel looking out onto the overgrown cliff face. Those at the front have the beach views but also the road, so the guest can balance quietness versus the view. Most rooms have luxury bathrooms with double wash hand basins, walk in showers as well as soaking tubs. The old rooms have a character and charm that comes with age, but all have en suite bath or shower rooms. The new rooms are larger. They have the classic arrangement with the bathroom helping to insulate the room aurally from the corridor. The lobby has the wardrobe in and in this sense the rooms are completely conventional. However they are longer than usual, giving room for the bathrooms to be large, with separate toilet, walk-in shower and bathtubs. In some rooms the tubs are enclose by shutters that can be opened so that it is possible to lounge in a bath whilst watching the sunset over the bay.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa
Lounge areas are generous and expanded by the practical balconies which also have their own table and chairs from which to enjoy a view that can encompass seals, a pod of porpoises and the boat traffic into the fishing harbour and marina on the other side of the bay.

Hard flooring and airconditioning make the rooms cool and the glazed end wall leaves the views can be enjoyed unobstructed. Furnishing is styllish and teh use of natural timber finishes chimes with the older parts of the hotel as well as the local styles

Whilst a 15 minute drive from central Cape Town, Chapmans Peak Hotel offers a unique blend of history, style and location that offer an informal alternative to the likes of the 12 Apostles or even the lovely Cellars Hohenort.

Words and Pictures © Patrick Goff July 2011

Mint, Tower Bridge, London

Mint Hotel, Tower Bridge London (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Refreshed? Mint is the new brand name for City Inns as they continue to grow the group, this being one of two large hotels they will add during 2011. The second, opening in May 2011 is in Amsterdam. Pepped up? This hotel is the latest in a clutch pepping up Pepys Street hard by the Tower of London. Here in a new ‘hotel quarter ‘ Mint joins a Novotel, Grange and Apex whilst a further five star will soon start construction in the strange building across the road.

The City of London is changing quickly as legions of clerks in bowlers with ink stained fingers vanish, another part of its past, replaced by computers nestling in buildings on sites that were once warehouses full of sugar, coffee, spices and other goods now delivered further downriver in containers at Tilbury.

Now the City is finance predominantly, needing less space than warehousing and gradually it is again becoming a desirable place to live as well as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, boasting around 25 million visitors a year. Many of these visitors are oblivious to the history, don’t know who Samuel Pepys was, and are only aware of the charms of Tower Bridge when they see it from the roof top bar that is such an attractive feature of this new building. The target audience for this hotel is the local banking industry, which, given London’s status currently as an international banking centre, is a very large audience. As with many hotels that cater for a business market, most of the rooms are shower only. In my view this unfortunate approach leaves hotels struggling to satisfy the family market at the weekends. Families may, with small children will certainly, prefer an hotel that offers a bath with the room, not just the shower.

Mint, Tower Bridge, London
As a generality, I find architectural interiors lacking in finesse but here the impact of the architecture is managed brilliantly. There are flaws, which I will come to later, but the initial impact of the design of the reception lobby is powerful with a strong visual aesthetic that I found myself enjoying more and more over the two days of my stay. This building delights with the geometry of the interiors and surprises with the views of the same geometry externally.

The first shock is on entry when the geodesic styled ceiling gives a view up the internal lightwell, which has what is claimed as the largest ‘living’ wall in Europe. Most of the space is double height, and around the edge runs a mezzanine that forms the breakout area for the meeting and conference spaces on two side, whilst another side forms a kind of cloister of small more intimate spaces for those little family or business meetings. The hotel enhances the usefulness of this space with free high-speed internet, which is continued throughout the hotel.

The space is architectural, sculptural, a sensation emphasised by the lighting by night. The sense of this as a sculptural space is enhanced by the use of ‘architectural’ furniture – you know the stuff, metal framed, slabs of foam, ergonomically appalling, designed to require a sitter to recline as if in a Roman toga and all looking as if the designer was given only a straight edge and one set square. The architectural purity of this space was spoiled after opening by the addition of some visual variety in the form of bookcases along one wall that add a decorative element through the book spines, to enliven the otherwise too formal space.

Mint, Tower Bridge, London
The staircase carves its way up one side providing a dramatic white diagonal whilst the reception desk provides a strong horizontal across another side. The result is some entertaining abstract shapes when viewed from various places, with an almost artistic purity. The height and use of carpet renders it a relatively quiet space and tucked under the staircase is a bar, one of three in the hotel. One of the attributes that sets this hotel apart from many others is the staff. Helpful, friendly, well trained they reflect well on the operator, from the greeter at the entrance to the waiting staff. When a jogger twisted her ankle, they were quick with ice and a compress, bringing coffee etc. whilst she was attended to.

The reception desk is long with more than half a dozen workstations along it. Unusually for an hotel everywhere is equipped with those fruit computers, and the screens can be turned to share their contents with the guest. The same brand is used as the entertainment centres in the bedrooms, giving access to television, movies and the web, all included in the room cost.

It is in access to the bedrooms that the architecture works least well. The corridors are long and a little bleak, unrelieved by any images and little colour whilst detailing is simple, minimalist. Nothing decorative lifts the environment. Where the austerity of touch works in the more complex areas of the lobbies etc., here it is just very plain. Unfortunately, this can make it a little disorienting for guests as there is little to distinguish one floor from another.

Access to the guests floors via the lift lobby is secure passing both reception desk and being overseen by the reception for the main restaurant. Unlike most hotels here there is generous lift provision and one lift accesses the Sky Lounge, the rooftop bar that is a feature of this hotel. Lift lobbies have views at every level but once out of the lift lobby there are no clues to help a guest recognise they are on their floor.

Mint, Tower Bridge, London
The bedrooms themselves are well designed with plain fabrics and carpets. The lack of decoration and the simplicity is almost basic but the service levels and provision of the facilities in the room lifts the hotel above this. All the rooms have good work desks with mirrors above with workstations and keyboards for those who do not want to work on their own laptops. In the suites there are large screens with good sound systems attached, in the bedrooms the large fruit computer screens stand for TV’s as well as working computers – sensible as it enables timeshift TV viewing using online services such as the BBC’s i-Player. Ample sockets allow for those who need to charge laptops/cameras/phones/music players.

Shower rooms are efficient and well laid out. In the DDA rooms the styling is good in chrome and white, perfectly acceptable to the non-DDA guest so no need for these rooms to be last let or considered below the standard elsewhere in the hotel.

All rooms are air-conditioned but windows open allowing fresh air into the rooms. In a surprisingly quiet location for central London this aids the green credentials, allowing rooms to work without the air-conditioning being turned on. The hotel planning is intelligent, with a bar in the lobby, a bar on the roof with terraces alongside private dining areas and another bar on the ground floor. The bar in the lobby sits under the stairs and is essential to service the art performances the hotel is intent on making a regular feature of ‘lobby life’.

The rooftop terrace was popular from opening. With views across the London skyline and down onto the Tower of London its popularity has grown to the extent that the Hotel is now considering whether to charge membership. Already it is difficult to book for afternoon tea and evenings see a crush. It has a large roof terrace and a balcony over the street that is closed off until a solution is found to protect pedestrians below from objects falling from the bar – a great shame as this is where the best views can be obtained.

Mint, Tower Bridge, London

Alongside the reception is the Fenchurch bar. Windows onto Pepys Street and a pedestrian way leading from there to Fenchurch Street station it makes good use of its position of high visibility. Inside it has private seating areas created down the window side allowing for small meetings or gatherings of friends to take place in semi-private.

In an area teeming with offices the restaurant already does a brisk lunchtime trade to the office workers and also maximises its position to have a street facing side, again on a main pedestrian route to Fenchurch Street, one of London’s smaller commuter termini. All the bars are stylish and the rooftop bar (predictably the ‘SkyLounge’)also offers a function room for private dining with views to the Gherkin, Stock Exchange and the London skyline.

Mint, Tower Bridge, London
This is a large hotel, with over 500 bedrooms. It doesn’t appear large and the public areas integration of parts such as the conference and meeting rooms lends itself to busy use of public areas but there is still separation. The internal planning is sized well to cope with the numbers. Not only does the internal planning work well but the building is oriented so as to maximise the potential of the site, from the integration of the passenger car drop off at the front and the car park entrance to the visible presence on the street of bars and restaurant. The architecture is strong and creates a stylish hotel . Whilst interiors are sculptural, architectural, and to this designers eyes lack a little inspiration they are still fascinating and work well visually and operationally – something more style oriented hotels opened recently noticeably fail to achieve.

With a superb location this is an hotel that will deservedly become very successful, and make a Mint…

Written after a visit in March 2011. Words and images © Patrick Goff

St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Falmouth

St. Michael’s, Falmouth (Patrick Goff)

1000 604 Daniel Fountain

Falmouth has its place in history, its place as a centre of the web. Not the internet but a network of Royal Mail packet boats – the ‘snail-mail’ of the 17th and 18th Century. From here packet boats took mail, supplies and wages to British armies abroad through a web of sea routes at a speed slightly slower than 6 megabits a second.

Falmouth was also a centre for orders for ships arriving in northern Europe, far enough down the channel to be safe from the marauding French. Here ships would arrive in the world’s third largest natural harbour, the sensible place for ship masters to stop to repair and revictual their ships coming across the Atlantic or up from southern seas. Here they collected orders from ship owners as to where their cargoes could go onward for maximum profit.

So the town was important, boasting two castles and fortifications enough to satisfy any history buff, whilst the grandeur of a town that was second only to London in the number of Embassies (representing those foreign sails making landfall here), still haunts the narrow streets.

Above all this is a maritime town, a jewel of the famed ‘Cornish Riviera’ and the refurbished St. Michael’s Hotel is a gem of Falmouth now. This is a 1920’s building that oddly became an hotel in 1940. I suppose once the conversion to an hotel was underway a little local disagreement with Continental neighbours (perhaps) was no reason to stop, but it was a curious time to launch a new hotel even so.

St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Falmouth
Like many English seaside hotels the hotel gradually slid into decay and presented an opportunity for new owners to transform into a stylish resort hotel, shaking off the tired tradition of the English seaside in favour of creating an exercise in theatrical charm. For theatrical in many ways this hotel is, in a slightly restrained English manner, mixing concepts and colour in an eclectic mélange that works delightfully.

Theatre starts outside with graphics creating a branding through the use of sails and sailcloth, echoing modern Falmouth’s role as a major builder of luxury yachts and a home to one of the UK’s finest marinas. The external sail motif and the large mural image in reception is enhanced by the addition of real sails and rope echoing Falmouth’s past and present significance with the sea.

Falmouth is also second home to the National Maritime Museum of what was once one of the world’s leading maritime nations. Being in Cornwall, the Museum and hotel alike only acknowledge in passing that they are in England preferring, like the Bretons in France, to pretend they are a separate people: the Cornish, and one of the six Celtic nations.

With family from just across the border in Devon I can, of course, only laugh at their presumptions.

St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Falmouth
The Reception desk is a lifeboat behind which curved ship-type sliding doors conceal offices. The entrance is marked by two sails and the ‘boardwalk feel’ of the lobby is enhanced by a large image of sailing vessels, the sail of one of which is a real canvas and rope artefact.

From the Reception desk with its faux boat, mast, creels and sails, it is possible to see through into the bar and restaurant. The short passageway, off which goes the staircase to many of the bedrooms, leads not to more slightly Disneyesque theatricals but to sophisticated interiors, linked to reception by colour and in which the nautical theme is played down to subtle hints – portholes in doors, pebbles and fish tanks.

The portholes look into a walk-in wine cellar and award winning Cornish Camel Valley wines feature strongly on the wine list. Walls have been removed to create a large space flooded with light with views across the gardens into the bay beyond. The bar here is the focus and is a delight – a confection of coloured light and tiles, mixing up and down lights with under lighting of the bar top. The wall behind the lounge seating is rippled with subtle echoes of the sinuous ridges waves make in sand and concealed lighting gently changes colour, washing the wall with pale calming colours. There is a small lounge area and a focal point in front of a fire place in which flames flicker warmly.

Through a doorway is a lounge configured like a luxury yacht, masculine in feel, with a floor like a yacht’s decking with leather seating. Already this area is becoming popular for informal business meetings and the large TV is permanently tuned to Bloomberg emphasising this.

St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Falmouth
Beyond the bar is a lounge area where windows along one side present spectacular views across the bay, overlooking the waves which creates some of the best surfing in Europe. Cornwall is renowned for its surfing industry and is a major element of the tourist business in the county.
Another lounge flows down to large picture windows and is separated from the restaurant area by fish tanks and a mirror. This and the restaurant are built out above the swimming pool area. The new owner extended and opened this part of the hotel to maximise the views of the bay and Pendennis Castle, which built in the 16th Century when Falmouth began to attain its vital role in the maritime life of the nation.

This area is quite separate from the bar and the club lounge and offers a pre-dinner drinks space or a place for coffee and brandy afterwards. By day of course it is great for teas or sandwiches. The restaurant varies its layout using different table shapes, etched glass screens and strips of coloured LED lighting to create private areas, breaking the big space up into smaller and more intimate seating arrangements. Colour plays an important role in unifying these disparate elements, with etched glass used throughout the hotel to pull things together.

There are two small conference rooms as well as a larger function room with its own bar, and the hotel, whilst offering free WiFi throughout, also offers internet stations for guests. The division between resort and business is well balanced with the club lounge just keeping enough of the hotel clearly oriented around the needs of business – it could almost be declared a child-free zone as I imagine that in school holidays this will be a very popular destination hotel for families.

The simple finishes are carried through into the bedrooms and the spa area, but here and there are touches that remind one of the location. Ground floor public toilets for example are presented as a pair of beach hut changing rooms and timber cladding is frequently used to evoke that ‘seaside’ feeling.

St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Falmouth
In the bedrooms timber cladding is used again and the colour is carried through, along with ‘seaside’ art images, which helps keep the coherence of the design. As usual in an old hotel there is a great variety of room types. There are suites, and larger rooms have terraces. All have good work desks and plenty of drawer space for those wanting a longer stay than a couple of nights.
The bedrooms have a sophisticated simplicity, their varying sizes giving them an individuality that comes by default with older buildings. The choice of natural finish to the timber furniture harmonises with the driftwood used elsewhere. The use of timber, from flooring to furniture and skylight soffits, is enhanced by the use of driftwood in feature pieces and lamps made of rocks. The colour palette varies in tone but not in hue.

Whilst avoiding becoming kitsch the seaside theme is taken neatly through the bedrooms with striped fabrics echoing deck chairs and simple white and eau-de-nil colour palette making everything look fresh and clean. Most rooms have sea views and the sound of gulls.
In the Spa area, rope holds up driftwood display shelves and the timber treatment room panelling echoes the beach huts imagery deliberately invoked with the decor for the public toilet area.

The Spa is very busy and has a very healthy local membership for its gym and four treatment rooms. The pool has been enlarged and opens onto a wide terrace in the summer months on the edge of notable gardens. Gardens are exotic in English terms as the area is warmed by the gulf stream and has a warmer climate than much of England, allowing more delicate and exotic species to flourish.

St Michael's Hotel & Spa, Falmouth
This is a classic English seaside hotel, which with a sensitive but ambitious makeover transcends the run of the mill to become comparable with hotel such as the Marine (of a similar age) or the 12 Apostles (and the spa is better).

Although not on the beach it is certainly of the beach. Its gardens are separated from the shoreline by the sea road, its elevated position giving it views the redesign has capitalised on.

The refurbishment is already bringing the enhanced occupancy levels it deserves. As petrol prices rise and foreign travel becomes once again the preserve of the rich, English seaside hotels need to emulate the standards set here.

From a visit in January 2011. Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff

Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia (Patrick Goff)

1000 732 Daniel Fountain

I’ve lost count of the number of trips I have made into what we must now call Central Europe over the last ten years. A fascination with the changes being wrought in the formerly oppressed states of what was called ‘Eastern Europe’ has grown into a love of the sense of history contained in the architecture and landscapes.

This, my second visit to Slovakia, was sparked in part by Kempinski’s announcement of the opening of their Grand Hotel in the mountain resort of Strbske Pleso. It was all about driving through the High Tatras, the mountains that span the border between Poland and Slovakia, due south of Krakow, although my ultimate destination was the Angelo in Katowice.

Long a traditional resort for Poles, the area has spectacular scenery of mountains and lakes and the clean air has been seen as a remedy for the ills of city life since the 19th Century. The drive from Austria through the mountains and across Slovakia was beautiful, the roads quiet.
The Grand Hotel started life as a great residence visited by European royalty and morphed into a sanatorium in the peoples republic. It has now become a people’s playground again, albeit with a level of luxury that was probably undreamed of by previous users.As we drove up the mountain road there were tantalising glimpses of turrets and roofs along the hill crests.

Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

The main building has been painstakingly restored with the help of the discovery of light fittings and original colour schemes protected first from invaders and then from state confiscation. The development has been extended along the lakeside by the addition of apartments that will be serviced from the hotel once completed, sharing with the hotel spectacular views across the lake to the mountains in one direction and over the valley in the other. All around are B&B’s and hotels under refurbishment.

Time warped hotels await attention as the state struggles to identify the descendants of owners long gone. Many died in concentration or labour camps or fled from repression. The task is complicated by destroyed documentation and forged documentation alike, so there are still boarded up hotels with hints of previous glories perhaps from the 1930’s lining the roads through an area that even in winter is served by an efficient mountain railway and roads I am told are nearly always passable.

The local community has now taken possession of a ski jump built to service Olympic competitions but then allowed to fall into disrepair. The redevelopment of the ski trails and the infrastructure to create another fine European winter sports area is now well under way, with Kempinski leading the the way with this impressive property.

Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

The status of the hotel was marked by a pale blue Bentley parked in the entrance as we arrived, and the area was thronged with families enjoying a stroll around the lake behind the hotel. The views are spectacular, indeed Slovakia is very beautiful, the mountains even more so, rising to over 9,000 feet/2,700 metres in this region. In the typically changeable August weather we were able to watch lightning playing along the mountains peaks across the lake from the windows of our bedroom.

The Soviet influence is now only apparent in small ways – the hat worn by the porter for example being one of those outsized round Soviet style peaked army hats, an outsized wagon wheel of a hat. Behind the reception counter the striking red dressed Kempinski ‘woman in red’ stood ready to answer all our questions as we checked in. Welcome was five star and one of the memorable things about this hotel was the GM, Gerd Ruge, who’s wealth of experience made a distinct difference to how the design worked, and who stamped his personal style on the hotel as the best GM’s do.
The reception lobby is large and stylish with a traditional reception desk down one side. Guests are offered a welcoming drink and are then shown to their rooms.

Proximity key cards are used but amusingly one of Herr Ruge’s angry moments was when I asked why it showed a red housekeeper when the room was ready to make up, and he revealed he had repeatedly tried to resolve the working of the indicator panel outside the room door as the colour was showing wrongly. I remember reading once how fatalities were caused in hospitals because engineers use red and green in the reverse way to most people, causing confusion with operators. Green means all OK no action needed, red that something needs doing in this reverse thinking, and it seems the well engineered product adheres to this rather than orienting for us normal mortals for whom green means go, red stop.

Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

The buildings are long and straggling, producing changes in level as well as twisting as they follow the line of the lakeside. The forests around the lake have a scattering of villas, some abandoned and overgrown as the state struggles to establish normal ownership patterns. Lakeside paths are busy but on normal workdays and early morning/late evenings a few joggers are all that disturb the wild life. With windows open the room echoed mainly to the sounds of bird song and raindrops, and the tradition of the buildings as a sanatorium suits it well to be a spa resort. The twisting of corridors and changes in level made this an interesting building to walk through and corridor view lines were always short.

The bedrooms are well laid out and furnished, with rugs laid on timber floors. Although the wardrobe was large there was not quite enough drawer space – but then travelling for weeks by car does leave me with quite a large amount to place in an hotel bedroom. The timber floors were broad real timber planks, a little spoiled by faulty maintenance, with the cleaning liquid used leaving a kind of bloom over the plank and not cleaning it effectively either. The bathrooms were truly luxurious, well planned and laid out with soaking tubs and separate walk in showers. The impressive iteration of this in the room for those with disabilities gave one of the most luxurious versions of a DDA room I have seen.

The use of timber in the schemes was extensive and successful and the sophisticated luxury feel was harmonious and restful – no shrieking colours to scream and assault the eye yet the variety of colour tone and texture gave sufficient interest to the eye for the rooms to appear very stylish.
This subtlety in the use of materials continued throughout the public areas, the restraint allowing the real fire in the bar lounge for example not just to register visually though its rosy glow, but to literally glow against the traditional polished timber wall panels, its crackling logs providing an aural and olfactory experience to match the visual sophistication.

The restaurant was on the first floor along with the function room dining and the kitchens, its own log fire burning in the evenings. In the restaurant the skill of Herr Ruge shone through. He had created a small play area for children to one side of the restaurant and whilst they played the tables around were filled with their families , parents acting as a barrier between their offspring and other guests. It was subtly done by the staff, but seemed to work to the benefit of children (who became engrossed in each other) their parents (who watched but rarely needed to intervene) and the other guests.

Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

The restaurant was on the front of the hotel and at first floor gave spectacular views across the valley. The layout, positioning of the waiter stations, separation of the tables and its height gave a sense of space and luxury. The light fittings had been rescued from where they were hidden in 1938 and restored again grace the room. Note of caution – if anyone offers you a Slovakian spirit aperitif beware, damn things remove your throat lining!
Private dining ranged from a wood panelled room with views across the lake to a small turret room offering romantic dining for two at the very top of the hotel with 360° panoramic views all around. In addition there is a healthy eating area in the spa and leisure complex.

The spa and leisure complex is large and comfortable. The pool has views to the mountains and the lake and there are plenty of loungers and small cabana style areas for day long lounging. The reception desk bar counter an office are grouped together , minimising staffing needs, and there is a small gym and well designed treatment rooms for massage and other therapies.

Kempinski have a gem of a hotel in a fantastic position. Location, location, location is the mantra, and this is wonderfully located to take advantage of developments in the High Tatras, one of Europe’s remaining underdeveloped scenic areas. As the popularity of this area grows and it increases in prosperity so the hotel will inevitably prosper.

© Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in August 2010

Hotel Oscar, Madrid

Hotel Oscar, Madrid (Patrick Goff)

1000 423 Daniel Fountain

Many things can drive the genesis of a new hotel chain, but mostly it is driven by personal views of owners. Room Mate was a response by three friends in Madrid to their inability to find an hotel that satisfied their view of what an hotel should be. Setting out objectively to list what they were looking for they created the first Room Mate Hotel. Following a well-trodden path, they looked for city centre ‘location, location, location’. They wanted creative design and value for money, personal service without unnecessary extras, just a good breakfast.

The formula worked and there are now a dozen hotels in Europe, the US and South America, each with its own personality and each with a person’s name to reinforce the sense of them as individuals. Oscar is the latest of the four Madrid Hotels, opening in a Bauhaus building in Chueca. Lead designer on Oscar was renowned Spanish Interior Designer Tomas Alia.

Hotel Oscar, Madrid

Photo from Hotel Oscar website

The designs for Oscar are youthful, bold and avant-garde, the overall image is sensual and sophisticated. The designer uses subtle variations of finish and texture to enrich the visitor experience.

The designer tried to create walls of contrast, using different materials to bring different qualities. In the public areas the lighting plays a principal role in softly changing the colours and subliminally transforming the space.

Hotel Oscar, Madrid

Photo from Hotel Oscar website

There are 75 rooms and suites arranged over seven colour–coded floors, which look out over the Plaza Vazquez de Melia. The predominantly white bedrooms all feature cool contemporary furniture and striking design flourishes such as bright block colour, bold patterns or giant monotone photographic images. If you want a night in, or a bite to eat before you go out and party, there is a restaurant, cocktail bar and rooftop terrace bar with plunge pool.

With curling organic forms allied to light and subtle colour accents Oscar breaks away from the vernacular to introduce a new aesthetic.

Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel

Royal Spa, Kitzbühel (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Any ski hotel will fill if it is positioned at the bottom of the ski-lifts. The Royal Spa sits on the edge of Jochberg, just 7 km from Kitzbühel, and at the bottom of not one but two ski lifts. As Mr. Hilton famously said ‘location, location, location’. It provides the ultimate in skiing luxury. The trick for most is not filling rooms whilst the ski season is in full swing, but in filling rooms out of season. Kitzbühel is one of Austria’s main ski centres, a busy trendy place to be off piste, in summer still busy but still presenting hotels with the same problem – what do you do without snow?

For Cube the answer lay in attracting mountain bikers and the hotel was structured with the cycle path within the atrium so that the bikes could be taken to the rooms and the audience was clearly defined. Here in the atmosphere of luxury and indulgence the task is much harder – five star resort luxury and Lycra do not easily go together, although the hotel does offer mountain bike hire as part of the draw.

Golf too makes up part of the attractions on offer, with four courses in Kitzbühel and the hotel constructing its own driving range, putting and chipping greens and a golf simulator with a golf pro in attendance. Curiously Austrians are required to taken an exam before being allowed to golf on the country’s courses – a measure perhaps of how elitist the sport is here? More likely a measure of how little flat land there is on which to build a golf course.

Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel

The Royal Spa has, as its name suggests, created as a part of its answer to attracting the guests one of Europe’s largest and most luxurious Spas. Here we are not just talking about massage or beauty treatment, although both are covered, but the full sybaritic experience with added attractions, such as plastic surgery to extend the range of holistic cosmetic and beauty treatments available.
The Spa and Leisure areas cover two floors with the Spa and treatment rooms on the lower level. The Reception is supersized with a large sales counter for beauty products and a waiting area.

Twin corridors lead to pampering and treatment rooms, some of which are for couples. Design is sophisticated and the space is broken up by good lighting and changes of surfaces. The range of available treatments is enormous and with a plastic surgeon in attendance for face lifts etc, it extends the range of beauty treatments well beyond what is normally offered in an hotel spa.

The separation from the Leisure area has enabled the creation of a totally different ambiance in the Spa proper, and it is silent and calming with the mix of sophisticated fabrics and surfaces perfectly enhanced by the lighting. Treatment rooms are also well designed with good indirect lighting, their own showers and good sound insulation.

Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel
As well as the more antiseptic treatment rooms there are rooms for couples which have rich loungers with scatter cushions. Apart from the timber front of the reception desk the slightly rustic treatment of the Leisure areas is avoided in favour of black against stone and rich reds of upholstery and paint finishes. Access is through the dedicated lift and its own lobby, so staff have easy control of the entrance area from the front desk, enabling privacy and security to be maintained quite simply. The upper Leisure area has two pools – an indoor pool and a separate pool outdoors. The outdoor pool can be entered from the inside for those hardy souls who like to swim throughout the snowy Austrian winter. The design of the upper area is curious.

The ceiling echoes a wave form, but the room is divided by partitions that appear to be a pastiche of the Austrian local vernacular homes own wood stores. Maybe there is some local tradition that I am unaware of whose symbology is being echoed, but the use of logs of various kinds along with simple planks to break up a large area is unconvincing. The theme is carried through the front of the areas reception and food counters bringing a slightly primitive touch into an otherwise sophisticated interior space.

The adjacent bistro area enables guests to spend the day in their ‘cossies’ without venturing into the other areas of the hotel, and the space has large lounging areas, including discreet private cabanas, two seat enclosed chairs and quiet zones to offer alternatives to the pool.

Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel
To be honest, I don’t understand the decor around the pool. I understand that desire to use natural materials and even the urge to reflect locale – indeed if that is the intent then I applaud it – but the way in which the timber is used seems to lack finesse to my English eyes. The larch trunks, planks and logs screening the various seating areas around the pool leave me floundering to see the logical underpinnings and the apparent randomness of the arrangement may reflect the random log piles around local homes but leaves me struggling to see the aesthetic. Indeed it leaves me with a strong urge to look for a stove to stoke.

Yet the designer demonstrates such sophistication in areas such as the signage and the lift lobby that I think the failing must be mine, and must be cultural in some way.

In the bedroom areas the local timbers have been used again, so the pale bleached look of new knotty pine – sorry, native larch, dominates. The timber has been used freely and works well with the rich gold and red colour scheme of the fabrics and carpets. Until that is it comes to flooring where the softness of the larch means that flooring is of white oak, close in tone, similar in colour but quite different in grain. Further wood confusion strikes in the suite, where the mahogany of traditional furniture competes with the light flooring and bleached look of the larch.

Detailing in the use of the timber is however beautifully done, and it will no doubt darken with age to the deep honey colour that can be seen in the bars and bistros that dot the area. The light wood has also been used for the furniture throughout, so the overall effect is harmonious.

IMG_0812
The bathrooms are a glass cube containing both wash hand basins, soaking tubs and walk-in showers with both rain heads and hand shower units. However the openness of the glass cube has apparently led to guest complaints, so a curtain has been added around the outside – which makes peeking a more voyeuristic pleasure! Bathrooms and bedrooms are both well lit and where the room is a suite there is a separate toilet in the lobby. Red mosaic tiling and rich brown stone complete the bathroom colour scheme. The power of the showers and the fit of the doors combine so that when a shower is on full the door opens slightly with the pressure change letting water accumulate on the bathroom floor, a phenomenon I have noticed in other bathrooms.

All the bathrooms have balconies which are very private from each other. Deep enough too that even on a wet August afternoon it is possible to sit out, be dry and read a book. The rich curtains provide very effective blackout and room lighting, desk etc are all well judged.
The timber is again used in the restaurant to create completely panelled spaces. Whilst its lightness works well for eyes whom oak is the most beautiful of timbers, its use falls short of suggesting luxury. Also the use of light oak in the floors only emphasises the difference in grain – it might have been better to use a darker oak against the larch.

The restaurant opens on a large mezzanine area which is a library by day and a pre-dinner drinks area at night. It also leads through to the well designed and extensive conference facilities which are also a part of the answer to the lack of snow. In Austria there is a surprising amount of industry on the valley floors and the new facilities are already successfully attracting a high level of business. Dramatic lighting pieces bring interest to the lounges and they also have large fireplaces for those coming in off the slopes in winter. The bar is large and carries the red theme through contrasting it against black. Again there are library areas adding a green colour to the mix, and a cigar room too. These area are dramatic with their strong colour and lighting.

The mezzanine leads through to the lift lobby and a grand staircase from the ground floor. The balcony overlooks the main entrance and the reception lobby below and panels of natural stone contrast against black and red with strong black and white upholstered chairs and red sofas. The interior drama reflects the drama of the building as one approaches from Kitzbühel, its modernity and physical presence dominating the drive across the valley bottom from Kitzbühel to Jochberg. This is a confident modern statement architecturally, backed up by a confident modern set of interiors, both of which have drama and presence in a landscape which is itself full of the drama of the mountains.

© Words & Pictures Patrick Goff
Made on a visit in August 2010. The hotel opened in December 2009

Hotel Angelo, Poland

Hotel Angelo, Poland (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Set in the Silesian coalfields, Katowice is a city of concrete. Dotted around the skyline of this grey city are sets of the pithead lifting gear. Along its roads march blocks housing the flats, hotels and shopping centres of a modern Polish city. Many are painted and there are new, more stylish blocks added by the banks and other institutions moving here from Western Europe (see Design Club Gallery Designers Sources for images of Katowice).

One of these new buildings is Vienna International’s new Hotel Angelo. This is another concrete block painted white with sharp painted graphics on the outside, a canopy and a garden area screening an external terrace. Set end on to the main road the hotel has its own underground parking and large coach parking area outside. The glazed canopy of the entrance doors and the sharp external graphics give a hint of the strong colour used throughout a striking interior.

The painted concrete areas are lifted by sitting on a glass walled lower two floors. The meeting rooms on the rear elevation break out of the block in both scale and colour. This is subtle architecture.

Like the previously reviewed hotel (the Radisson Blu Frankfurt) this too has concrete columns inside, but these have been placed rationally in relation to the interior. They are slim and painted white so don’t intrusively break up the views through the hotel, nor add industrial touches to the sophisticated interior design. Another similarity with Frankfurt is the staircase to a mezzanine floor off which opens the busy meeting and conference rooms, but its placement is used creatively to break up the space and create a private bar area.

Hotel Angelo, Poland
On this large rectangular floor the public areas are defined using colour from lampshades as well as painted walls and backlit counters. Strong fabrics on the seating areas and lines of simple strongly coloured lampshades also help definition of the spaces. The reception desk, back lit in yellow faces the door, with the lifts immediately adjacent allowing simple security oversight, supplementing the use of the electonic room keys to activate the lift.

The positioning of the desk with the adjacent maitre d’ station at the entrance to the restaurant allows good management control across the whole of the public areas as well as enabling staff to provide an easy smiling service. In this hotel the relationship between design and operation has been worked harmoniously.

Food is served both in the main restaurant and bistro area adjacent to the bar, as well as within the bar area. Definition of the spaces is managed well through design, with lounge areas in the bar along with a cleanly designed bistro area, complete with its own direct access to the same kitchens as the main restaurant. The design of the bar in particular makes intelligent use of the fragmented spaces available to create different areas. Behind the bar is an area with a large TV screen where events could be followed, such as a football match. In front of the bar is another large screen but the area here is much more like a traditional lounge bar. Between the two is another lounge with the intimacy and style of a private lounge despite being an open space.

Hotel Angelo, Poland
Tack on the space of the bistro and the design is stylish, intelligent, provoking a variety of uses by guests without appearing to demarcate. Even the placement of the public access net computers is intelligent, in a separate area under the staircase but overseen by the bar allowing service of food and drinks to be simply delivered.

The outside terrace works off the main restaurant, screened by bamboo planting and pots. With strong red umbrellas and the same red on the pots against the fresh green of the bamboo, even this area echoes the style of the interior. In the restaurant, the use of red lampshades on tracks means they can be kept directly over the tables, all at the same height; this provides a visual line of repetitive elements that is both attractive and hypnotically fascinating to the eye.

The two food and drink areas are separated by the reception lobby; definition and visual interest to this area is given again by the use of the lampshades, in this area looking like slightly blowsy upturned umbrellas. In a large concrete defined area like this, the ceiling could easily be a deadening blank canvas, but the interior designer has cleverly made it into an attractive, visually patterned area by both day and night. The use of strong splashes of colour in the shades as well as bold panels of colour on the wall adds to the visual delight as does strong art work.

The staff seem to take pleasure in their work place too making for a presentation of the hotel on entry, when emerging from the lifts, down the stairs or from the conference zone that is a delight. This whole area is as well designed a space as I have seen in a long time anywhere, and one which the staff obviously feel is enabling to them.

Hotel Angelo, Poland

Taking the lift to the bedroom floors shows the same intelligent use of artwork and the spaces. On the executive floors, the large lift lobbies hold easy chairs, some strong artwork and another set of public internet stations. These act as business centres on each business floor. Adjacent to the workstations are placed coffee machines and cups so business guests have the opportunity to gossip at the coffee machine or to take fresh brewed coffee back to their rooms.

Corridors use the standard black yellow red colour scheme with the door reveals red colouring coupled with the carpet design showing clearly where room doors are an minimising the tunnel effect of lengthy corridors. Plenty of artwork, mainly imagery of Katowice itself adds visual interest to the corridors although the imagery in the lift lobby does more, imparting drama and cleverly sized to almost the same size as the window.

Bedrooms carry the colour scheme through with the white linens on the beds and the white in the bathrooms making the overall effect crisp and clean. There are plenty of pictures in the bedroom, including one that is only revealed when the curtains are drawn! Bedrooms are the standard hotel bedroom layout and are reasonably sized, but like the ground floor everything has been thought through and positioned properly. The sensibly sized desk has easily accessible sockets.

Hotel Angelo, Poland
White wall behind the desk faces the black wall behind the red bedhead. Both are lit by lamps carrying red lightshades with a kind of transition between the two being made by the black and red curtains, which also provides effective blackout.

Bathrooms follow the current pattern of provision in hotels at this level in that some 65% of bedrooms have shower rooms rather than bathrooms. Bathrooms have the shower over the bath. Both are well sized and carry the colour scheme through, being predominantly white with a red mosaic border half way up the wall and black vanity units. With everything else white or chrome the whole has a sharpness and integrity that the writer found very aesthetically satisfying.

Coming into an hotel at this level so well thought out brings a sigh of relief and appreciation by comparison with the groping that can characterise so many, more ambitious, schemes in supposedly better hotels.

If all Angelo’s are going to be like this then Vienna International had better get on and build more – and in Western Europe as well as in the countries of Central Europe.

From a Visit made in August 2010. Words and Pictures are Copyright. ©Patrick Goff/HotelDesigns

Radisson Blu, Frankfurt

Radisson Blu, Frankfurt (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

I have just featured two hotels (Cube and Ongava) where the guests’ needs, in terms of why they are at those locations, has driven the form of the hotel. In the case of Cube the operator has intelligently analysed a European market and completely reworked the form of the hotel to meet the function demanded of the building by the resultant guest profile.

Operator and designer have worked together to provide solutions that result in the hotel running all year round at very high occupancy rates. In effect, the architecture has been driven by the guest profile and the building has been designed from the inside out.

Award winning architecture, an iconic building, does not necessarily make for a good hotel. At Frankfurt the Radisson Blu is a classic example of where the function is dictated by the building form. The operator, Rezidor, has gained an iconic building with the added advantage of it being a highly visible position at the end of a motorway into the city, where it sits like an architectural full stop to the highway. The building is like a full stop in the sense that its form is circular, a form that then generates myriad problems for the interior designers and the operator.

As an ex-designer of hotels I like to try to get my head inside the head of the designer and understand what was trying to be achieved. Here the designer definitely lost out in a confused and difficult interior space riven with slabs and columns by what I see as the usual architect’s indifference to operational criteria or internal functioning. The architect created a powerful external statement that gave presence to the hotel without enabling the interior to work. For example the services to the rooms in the arcs of the circular building probably drop straight down as a chord through the various floors, the rooms becoming longer and longer as they near the circumference, then shrinking again and losing height as they get towards the top of the arc.

Radisson Blu, Frankfurt
Why are the hotel groups so seduced by architecture that they forget that the guest experience owes little or nothing to this aspect of the building? I was recently asked by Marriott whether I would choose a modern hotel or a historic conversion/refurbishment. I replied I would choose the most comfortable with the best bathroom. What is it about these operators that they cannot see that architectural ‘genius’ does not necessarily equal guest appreciation? After all that has been written and said over the years about the need for hotels to be designed from the inside out, it saddens me to see an operation like Rezidor, led by Kurt Ritter – perhaps the greatest of our contemporary hoteliers, succumbing to the same old tired architectural blandishments. Yes, they have a landmark building, but internally and operationally it is failing.

Maybe location is imperfect — falling between three stools. Close to but not a part of the business and banking district. Within sight of, but not close to, the exhibition halls. Close enough to the airport to have aircrew staying but not close enough to be an airport hotel. But such imperfections are commonplace and can be overcome by operational excellence. Given a malfunctioning poorly designed interior dominated by a visually intrusive staircase and a wine ‘tower’ that is not a tower, nor close enough to serve the restaurant, achieving operational excellence is made much more difficult to achieve.

The wine tower is a device Rezidor have used in other Radisson Blu hotels (see Stansted for example) but as a spectacle this one is near useless as it is positioned half way up the staircase and is little more than a glass walled cellar. As such it would have made more sense both visually and operationally to be next to the restaurant, possibly in place of the glass screen that sets the food operation apart from the rest of the ground floor areas. As it is, it makes staff walk half way up the staircase to fetch wine, and is virtually invisible from anywhere except the conference breakout zone on the mezzanine.

There are three restaurant areas. One with rose lighting, attractively set under seats and tables which leads from an adjoining bistro area that in turn runs off the lobby. Here the team are running a popular business lunch operation which makes me wonder why the third area, set at the front of the hotel, isn’t made similarly successful.

Radisson Blu, Frankfurt
My suggestion would be to turn this closed space into a typical Gästehaus bar/bistro operation. The food offering in this part of Frankfurt seems to be re-interpretations of Italian, Turkish or other nationalities. Given many guests are tourists to Germany it would seem something local would be profitable. It might also attract a beer and wurst local audience, making the space popular instead of it being dark – especially given its visible presence on the street side of the hotel. If this were a W it would be seen as the ‘Friday night millionaire’ corner of the hotel, the place to be seen, but original design has failed to attract a local trade and the hotel guests prefer the bar.

The bar is successful and neatly designed although the delivery route for stock is actually through the bar itself which is obviously less than ideal. With a clear view of the terrace, staff are able to effectively service the tables and the area is quite stylish. In between the bar and restaurant is an area broken by grey concrete columns and the lift shafts. Here is the lobby seating and reception desks, but the space is dominated by a long staircase that cuts intrusively across the double height windows. The area attempts openness, seeks grandeur, but feels claustrophobic. The interior designer has created a clever seating ‘box’ the sides of which lift to reveal power points and shelf space for laptops. On top of the sides are blue LED light fittings linked to the ceiling area by fibre cables which create a beam of blue light from each fitting.

Unfortunately the failure rate appears high, and the result is like a pretty girl’s grin when teeth are missing or blackened: disappointing and slightly shocking. It is also commented on negatively by guests. I know that Rezidor cut back on spending in the recession, but with the exterior signage missing lamps rendering it unreadable, this seems a somewhat dubious area of saving to make!

The bathrooms in the hotel are amongst the best I have seen in terms of interior design, including things such as retractable washing lines, and should be the standard for any four star hotel to mimic. The bathrooms also use digitally printed wallpaper to great visual effect and the use of colour in the different bedroom types is also striking and strong. Again, the structure imposes itself, giving bedroom floor to ceiling windows and creating odd sizes in the curves of the ends of the circular building.

Radisson Blu, Frankfurt
Here are placed the business rooms and suites so the varying size can be used to great effect in changing the kinds of rooms created. Whilst the designer shows considerable expertise in the handling of the standard room this assured flair isn’t as much in evidence in the suites where the length creates a number of problems. The windows are all on the ends of these rooms so the lighting becomes important, especially during daylight hours. Stopping one end of the room being shrouded in gloom by comparison with the window end requires an assured handling of the lighting balance.

The standard bedrooms reflect the brand standards, now also being rolled out in the US by the Carlson owners of the Radisson brand, They too have adopted the Radisson Blu naming, the Blu of course a reference to the original European brand owners SAS airlines whose logo was also a blue square. Indeed the previous design director for Rezidor, Gordon McKinnon, is now working in a similar role in Carlson US. For the first time we potentially have a mass market brand with standard room type across all continents.

Bedroom schemes range from funky to somewhat masculine conservative in the business rooms.All are well laid out and thought through. Sockets are in the right places and lighting the lighting is good. At four star Rezidor get it right and this is probably as good as it gets – although as standards continue to rise it will be interesting to see where the upgrade comes – a separate shower perhaps as well as bath?

All the more surprising then that the suites don’t carry the same conviction. Whilst bedrooms match the quality of the standard rooms and bathrooms too are well designed the lounge area seem a little at a loss as to how they should be to set out. Whilst everything is there they lack seem to me to lack some physical and emotional comfort, with large spaces with large pieces of furniture, but very masculine and corporate in feel.Even top businessmen need an environment in which they can relax.

Radisson Blu, Frankfurt

At the top of the circular building is the spa and pool area, taking advantage of the curve to place a glass roof over the pool and giving the area some of the best views of Frankfurt. There is a gym and some spacious well planned and detailed massage rooms. The wellness area is guarded by access via key card only, and I am continually surprised that this simple implementation of electronic key control isn’t a standard in all hotels to give added security to guests.The lift doesn’t move without key input providing some measure of security to all floors, and it also is needed to open doors in the spa.

This is a high visibility building with its garden pool and terrace. The restaurants and spa ought to have been buzzing. During my visit in August 2010 Europe was emerging from recession and Germany had shown growth of 2% in one quarter. Although quite busy the hotel was by no means full. I know August is a holiday month and Germany is putting towels on loungers by pools the world over, but it does not seem to be attracting any local business. For reasons one has to look to the location and the design.

Imposing from the outside the closure of one cafe shows that the interior is not targeted profitably on a suitable guest profile. Watching Korean, Nigerian, English and French guests struggling to master an international menu in a restaurant that was totally international in styling, I couldn’t help wondering if making it a little more German wouldn’t help with both the simplification of the menu and attracting the local community.

But then I’m just a designer who dislikes grey concrete columns scattered carelessly through an interior. Criticising the food is just a reflection of the irritation I felt at the architecture.

Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff. Made after a visit in August 2010

Ongava Lodge, Namibia

Ongava Lodge, Namibia (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

The boy was nervous, shining his torch carefully into the shadows, walking slowly so we were treading on his heels. The man with the rifle was alert, holding his weapon across his body, finger on the trigger guard. Was this a piece of hotel theatre staged for effect? We were walking back to our room after dinner, and were not allowed to leave the restaurant until our escort was in place.

Ongava Lodge is constructed on a small hill in the 323km² (125mile²) Ongava Game Reserve, a private reserve just outside the main gate of the Etosha National Park in Namibia. The National Park’s original 100,000 km² (38,500mile²) made it the largest game reserve in the world when created. The aim was to stem the rapid depletion of wildlife in the area, and protect the land through which the seasonal migrations passed. Then, just as a nature conservation unit and several tourist camps were set up, the reserves were redefined and Etosha shrank to its present size covering an area of more than 22 750km² (8,750mile²).

The addition of the private parks, many of which abutt each other and Etosha, has extended the range of protected territory as well as that of the predators. A ribbon of such reserves now stretches down through Damaraland and the Skeleton Coast to the Sossusvlei, the Namibian Sand Sea. The Lodges are all connected by dirt tracks and the areas own bush airline Sefofane.

Ongava Lodge, Namibia
So is the escort a piece of theatre by the Lodge to see guest safely back to their rooms? The second night, after a long working day, I decided to go back to our room early, long before dusk, and sit quietly on the balcony with a bottle of chilled white wine and watch the vault of heaven light up with the myriad upside down constellations of the African sky.

As we settled into our wicker chairs, wrapping ourselves in the provided blankets against the chill night air, a black backed jackal walked past a hundred or so metres away – followed by two lionesses and a lion, all on their way to the Lodge water hole. ‘Red in tooth and claw’, such wildlife is why tourism is growing – and why operators take every precaution to ensure the safety of their guests. As our guide said “we haven’t had anyone eaten this year…yet.”

The embrace of nature is a part of the philosophy of Wilderness Group who use the out of season times to provide experience of the game parks to children from African cities through their Wilderness Trust. They have lit enthusiasms, then paid for development and education both for individuals and whole communities. Now many have done this but uniquely Wilderness funds their activities, on over 60 sites across Africa, with luxury hospitality developments (see Little Kulala and Damaraland for other examples).

Ongava Lodge, Namibia
The luxury wraps around the guests at Ongava sometimes striking a slightly discordant note, such as when one can watch rhinoceros or giraffe at the waterhole whilst sipping an iced gin-and-tonic at the bar. The comfort is five star with meals served on the restaurant terrace under the stars or under the thatch, with clear views down to the plain below. Dusk and dawn, evening and breakfast time provide the best game watching as the beasts move to water then, but all the rooms are aligned to watch the waterhole or game paths.

As evening draws on the terrace has a fire pit to sit around and there is always the escort waiting to see guests safely back to one of the 14 rooms. Game paths also run between the rooms, and it can be a little startling to find a buck some ten feet from your balcony in the morning — to the buck too, although they don’t always take fright (too stupid?). Balconies are large and have an outside shower as well as the interior shower, allowing sun worshippers a quick cooling drench when the heat becomes too much to bear.

The individual lodges vary in size, but all have their own air conditioners, although in late July it was still cool enough under the thatch that their use was not necessary. Rooms have ample space for clothing and a daily washing service is included as the guest luggage allowance on the Cessnas is necessarily very limited. Laundry taken away one day is returned the next, neatly ironed.

Ongava Lodge, Namibia
The large shower room is organised so that the twin wash hand basins have a window in front of them through which it is possible to watch the waterhole whilst washing. Materials throughout are carefully chosen to reflect the environment but the whole is sophisticated with electric shaving points and ample power points for charging cameras etc..

Walls and floors look like a concrete version of Venetian plasterwork,and this is practical, being cool in the heat and easy to maintain in the sandy environment. The rooms open up into the thatch providing a large air circulation area to aid cooling. Windows have timber bars for security, which also help provide shade from the heat of the sun. Large French windows open onto the balcony and the absence of TVs and radios allows the wilderness to speak.

There is a separate higher-level lodge called Little Ongava. There, three large apartments each with small infinity pools, lounges etc make up the ‘suites’ of the Lodge. The Lodge has its own pool with sun loungers, sometimes shared with the dassies, and offers the main dining experience but the suites have their own self-contained lounges. Approached by high-level timber walkways this exclusive area was apparently adopted briefly as a sleeping platform by some lions shortly after opening, slightly surprising guests when they opened their front door!

The suites, like the rooms in the main hotel take their design cues from the African vernacular we have seen in other hotels reviewed updating them with luxury described by one commentator as “mixing Robinson Crusoe with the Savoy”. The resulting mix is however far more sophisticated then Crusoe may have managed and energy conservation, water recycling and safeguarding the guest’s physical well being all are part of the designers approach.

Ongava Lodge, Namibia
Game Lodges are a specialised sector of the hotel market. They are set in remote locations where the guest is prepared to endure journeys of enormous distances. Guests live in comparative isolation away from the comfort and security of 21st century city living in order to experience the adrenalin rush of being close to big game.

Despite their isolation and having to rely on their own abilities to supply water and power, these Lodges have lessons for all hotels. Some are obvious such as energy conservation and water recycling. Others are less obvious such as using the local vernacular within guest accommodation to reinforce a sense of place or enhance the theatre of experience. Even the game trails and experiences of seeing wildlife have lessons for hoteliers elsewhere as I showed (slightly tongue in cheek admittedly) when I created a wildlife safari suggestion in my Review of the Premier Inn Woking. David Seymour of Seymours Hotels has done it successfully in Jersey with his very successful guided walks along the tidal beaches on the island.

In all the lodges I have Reviewed there has been a successful blend of comfort with closeness to the environment. Standards of comfort and facilities rival those of any London four stars and are competitive with many of the city’s five stars. As the Cube in Austria has taken a hard look at its market and changed the design parameters to meet the identified guest need, so Wilderness have taken a hard look at the cost benefits of their design and guest needs to create something special.

If travelling and staying in hotels is about creating memories, then Ongava must top the league.

Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff
Date of Visit August 2009

Royal Hotel, Hull

Royal Hotel, Hull (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

I have a fascination with railway hotels. In Britain, they were part of the revolution in travel and hotel use in the mid-nineteenth century. Before the railways, mass travel was inconceivable and hotels were coaching inns, primarily places where horses for the carriages or stagecoaches could be changed. Such travel was slow and expensive but the railways brought mass travel into reality.

In the industrial towns and cities of the north, working pattern changes and the industrial workers in the mills became part of a well paid elite, at least initially, as wages were set at levels to tempt self employed artisans and field workers from the countryside into the towns. Factories began to have shutdowns to allow the whole workforce to take a holiday; the famous Wakes Weeks in Lancashire an example, where one writer recorded that in Bolton Wakes Week the only thing that moved in Bolton were the ‘hands on the town hall clock’.

More than just holidays however, the railways transformed the transportation of goods and people. Ports like Hull became major players in a world in which by the late nineteenth century, had exports from Britain totalling more than exports from all the other industrial countries of the world put together. Writing at a time when the UK has just announced a record negative trade balance this casts a sad light on the performance of British management, political and industrial, since then.

Royal Hotel, Hull
The demand from business as well as other travellers was clear to the entrepreneurs who built railways the world over which started a hotel building boom that was to last many years. The Royal in Hull is a part of a magnificent railway development, a terminal that has survived, in this the most blitzed city in the UK outside London, with many pre-war buildings destroyed or damaged. It stands comparison with later buildings we have featured (Andaz in London, Mohonk in upstate New York and the Queens in Leeds) as a testament to the imagination and willingness to invest of our Victorian forebears.

Indeed Victoria and Albert with their children stayed in this hotel in a visit to Hull in 1854 (the hotel dating from 1851). From the date of HM’s visit the Station Hotel became the Royal Station Hotel, now just the Royal Hotel.

The hotel is the subject of a continuing refurbishment programme from a new operator. Such hotels are a challenge for both operator and designers. Budgets inevitably are tight and much existing has to be refurbished whilst the whole establishment is lifted to remain competitive. For the operator it may mean retraining staff, or injecting a new esprit de corps. For the designer the key is spending the money in a targeted way to gain maximum ‘bang per buck’.

Royal Hotel, Hull
The refurbishment strikes its first confident note with a positive and stylish reworking of the reception and bar lobby. This room, which reaches right through the hotel, has been given a dramatic lighting centrepiece, a large assemblage of lights creating a focus in the centre of the room. As well as being dramatic, the fitting also reduces the vault feel by lowering the centre ceiling. It also stops the eye following the room through to the exit onto the platform through the opposite entrance on the station side of the hotel.

The addition of strong arcs of light around the bar area also draws the eye, again helping to stop what might otherwise have been a passageway effect. Further interruption is gained from the large central seating area. Strong pattern on wall and carpet are counterbalanced by simple paint treatment, but the visual key is the light fittings and the dramatic areas of light they create.

The most disappointing area is the section in front of the reception desk. Here, a small piece of the original mosaic floor is preserved but the floor generally is simple functional tiling, out of place with the mahogany and rich pattern and colour elsewhere.