It's a hectic modern world we live in. Obviously noticing that I was having trouble coping with this (by turning into some kind of mid-twenties Victor Meldrew), my girlfriend decided I was evidently ripe for some pampering, so booked us both on a two-night break at St David's Hotel & Spa in Cardiff. A bit of preamble about the hotel itself, which the spa is attached to. Completed in 1999 at the edge of Cardiff Bay, opposite Penarth, the hotel boasts 184 bedrooms on seven floors and is one of only two 5-star hotels in Cardiff (the other being the Hilton, in the city centre). It's one of Rocco Forte's hotels (he of Trusthouse Forte fame), with similar hotels also found in Manchester, Frankfurt, Rome, Edinburgh and St Petersburg. It's seriously impressive as it appears in your view as you drive in. It's a tall, glassy building, with a curved structure on the top to resemble a sail (never did find out what it does though, I thought it might be some kind of solar panel). You can drive up to the door and get your car valet parked, but as my girlfriend drives an old wreck we opted to save face and park it ourselves in the adjacent car park. This costs £4.20 a day and is not included in the room or package cost, but more on that later. As you walk in, you notice that the foyer has no ceiling, and looking up (and up) shows seven semi-circular balconies, one for each floor where the lifts exit. The rooms themselves are then down corridors leading from these landings. A very impressive sight, but not one to enjoy if you get a room on the 7th floor (like we did) and suffer from vertigo (like I do). There's a concierge to take your luggage in top hat and tails, which is something I'm not used to and he's a most impressive sight. I wasn't sure whether to tip him or not, but he left before I could offer, so that solved that problem. It must be said that all the way through the stay we received impeccable service. <
br> The room we had was a standard one - with a large (12ft x 25ft) main area containing a super kingsize bed, writing desk, and a large cylindrical wooden cabinet containing the TV/radio, glasses and cutlery and a minibar. I haven't seen a minibar in a hotel room for ages. There was also a large wardrobe (with automatic lighting - swanky), a trouser-press, and a very comfortable leather reclining armchair that looked like it had come out of a Jaguar XJ6. Through the patio doors out the back there was a small wooden balcony, with a wonderful view over the Bay (but a big drop, so I didn't go out there often). Oh, and one very important feature - cool, unobtrusive air conditioning. As our holiday was in the middle of the early-August heatwave, I was very thankful for this. The bathroom was also fully-featured, and being a new hotel everything was in perfect order. Where, of course, St David's differs from yer average 5-star hotel is with the spa. We had actually taken a Spa Break package, where you get accommodation in the hotel, breakfast and dinner in the Marco Pierre White 'Tides' restaurant, lunch in the Spa Lounge, and a complimentary spa treatment for a set price - for us this was the 'Spa Detox' break, with two nights accommodation for £230 per person (you can also get the same thing for £115 per person for a single night). On top of this you have free use of the swimming pool, Jacuzzi, steam room and gym, but must pay extra for further spa treatments. Each package gives you a 'themed' choice of treatments to select from. The spa staff were fantastic - courteous, polite and friendly. I kicked up a bit of a stink with one of my treatments (not deliberately, mind - it was a 'Hot Linen Wrap' that was just a little bit too hot for me to stand) which opened up all the customer service stops - the manager came to see me, hugely apologetic, and offered an alternative treatment scheduled to my liking. It
was totally my fault, not theirs, but their attention to detail was superb. I felt terrible because it was not their fault at all! You can also go to the Spa independently of staying at the hotel, but I would say that, given that it's a long drive from London and when you take into account the cost of the facilities you get in the package (i.e. rooms are normally £150 per night, dinner would be £25 per person, breakfast an astonishing £16.50 per person!) it makes more sense to take one of their packages. There is a separate lift for hotel residents to take to the spa, so you don't have to walk around in front of visiting businesspeople and local dignitaries wearing your (compulsory for spa use) white towelling bathrobe and matching slippers. I felt a bit like Hugh Hefner in Broadmoor (given that everyone else was milling around wearing the same thing). The restaurant was very good, too. For dinner, any Spa package includes a fixed Spa menu (with a choice of four different starters, main courses and desserts each), but you could, if you preferred, take the A La Carte menu with a £25 allowance, and make up the difference yourself. Incidentally, you can check on your bill by using the TV in your room at any time. The service was as I suppose one expects from a five-star hotel restaurant, i.e. very slick (I've never been anywhere near as nice as this before, so I was in awe of it all for the duration of our stay). You also get a complimentary pre-appetizer which was a nice touch. Plenty of wine to choose from too, but no Welsh wine when we were there (shame). Another reviewer found their waiter condescending, but ours were very efficient and polite; however, I do agree with her that £3.75 for a bottle of mineral water is a bit rich. Still, when in Rome... For breakfast, I would recommend asking to sit on the terrace, as it's a wonderful view. For a bloke who, five years ago, was still a university student living on £1.99 Woolw
orth's breakfasts, £16.50 for a fry-up (with toast and tea) is a bit hard to swallow - although not literally - but again in the package it's all included, and it is excellent. If you want to leave the hotel and see the sights, the open-top bus tour stops right outside every 30 minutes (the concierge knows the exact times) and you can hop on. Recommended. It's also worth walking around Mermaid Bay, as this has been extensively redeveloped in recent years, with the new Welsh Assembly building and Millenium Centre (to be home of the Welsh National Opera) under construction. There's also a number of trendy bars (including Salt, from which Charlotte Church got turned away for underage drinking recently!) and what-not. You can take a half-hour boat trip round the Bay which is also recommended. All good things come to an end and we left after our three days feeling revitalised and refreshed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my Hot Linen Wrap had not been charged, but we were more surprised when we got home later that day to note that our final day's treatments hadn't been charged, we had only been charged for one day's car parking, and that our room service lunch on the first day had also been omitted. Maybe the hotel was being overly generous, but I got the impression that the staff hadn't quite got the hang of all the integrated computer systems. I can't guarantee that they will be that generous if you stay there, but I will guarantee you'll enjoy your stay.
On our way down to Cornwall we decided to have an overnight stop in Cardiff, and the obvious place to stay was the St David's Hotel. We had been intrigued by what Rocco Forte Hotels would be like, knowing that he was trying to concentrate on the Luxury sector, after Granada bought out his family hotel chain some years back. I was hopeful that someone with passion for the hotel industry would offer something truly special in the UK where at best hotel chains are changeable. We booked our room direct with the hotel paying £150 for a Junior Suite including service and breakfast. We were hopeful that our stay would be a good one, but knew that it would be the service that would make or break it. Before our stay we had e-mailed the hotel on various occasions and found their customer service rather haphazard, usually requiring reminders. We hoped the service on a personal basis would be more dependable. We arrived at the hotel in Cardiff Bay on a sunny afternoon, and the area was shown at its best. It is worth noting that although the hotel is walking distance to Cardiff city centre, it is a fairly awkward and not particularly short stroll. The Hotel is located directly on the waterfront at one end of the Bay, across from various restaurants and leisure outlets. From photographs I expected the hotel to be very streamlined, but in reality it actually looks quite angular, except for the striking white roof, looking like some kind of horizontal sail. We parked our car in the car park, although you could have had your car parked for you, but at that time we hadn't remembered service was included and felt rather unwilling to tip someone to bring our two very tiny, and lightly-packed bags up to our room for us!! The car park is not complimentary during your stay, but is only £4.20 for a whole day, which can be added to your bill. Once entering the lobby, you are struck by the bold but very soothing image of the hotel. The lobby floo
r area is actually fairly compact and minimalistic, with a Concierge desk on the left and the Reception on the right and an area at the rear, just in front of the elevators, with trendy stools to sit on in a circular arrangement. What is particularly striking though is the height of the lobby. Looking up you see rows and rows of semicircular balconies rising from the lobby topped with a glass atrium at the very top. We checked in without fuss, being asked all the right questions, with a distinct feeling of real effort being made to provide the best service. We were even asked if we would like to be shown to our room. Our room was on the 5th floor (of 7) and was at the very end of one of the semicircular corridors. Walking along the wide and light corridor to your room, you could peer childlike over the balcony and look down on the lobby, and from there everything seemed so quiet, you felt as if you must not make any noise!! I couldn't help feeling that everything I said could be heard downstairs but I am sure this wasn't the case really. The room we should have had was a 'Junior Suite' but on first impressions our room would not have been described as such. It was fairly large with a wide entrance with floor to ceiling windows all along the left, with bathroom off, leading to the bedroom area. The main area had the large bed with fitted wardrobe, a comfy sofa at the end of the bed and the desk, TV unit and armchair at the end near the door leading to the balcony. I wish I had checked this was actually a Junior Suite, as it will bug me for ever more now!! The room had floor to ceiling windows on two sides, with curtains that you could pull to reduce the brightness. The room was fairly minimalistic with neutral carpet, stone and white panelled bedcovers and curtains, sofa with light cream covers, a honey coloured circular TV unit containing the TV, tea and coffee making facilities and mini bar. The headboa
rd was in a striped effect with two colours of wood to tone in with the fitted wardrobe, also in two coloured wood. The armchair was covered in a dark blue and green leather, the desk chair in blue leather. Everything was very well thought out, and extremely pleasing - nothing jarred or looked out of place. As for facilities, most items you would require were provided - mini bar, powerful hairdryer with diffuser, iron and board, TV, radio. The room had very good lighting, with spotlights, and traditional lamps. You could also switch all the lights on or off using one switch just inside the door or beside the bed. You are also given slippers and bathrobes (for use during your stay, or charged £50!). The bathroom was extremely good - very large with bath with hand held shower, separate shower, vanity unit with magnifying shaving mirror, WC and bidet. The tiles were a matt white with a small amount of blue and green mosaic tiles in a line all around the room and marble sink unit. I thought it was a bit strange in a bathroom where most things had been thought of, that the shower curtain was the standard white fabric kind, instead of a glass screen. The hand held shower over the bath was also a good idea but I couldn't seem to use it to wash my hair without causing rivers of water all over the floor. The tiled floor also got extremely slippery when it was wet. Every room at the St David's has a decked balcony leading off from the bedroom. Because our room was at the end, we only had a balcony on one side of us, and they are separated by a cream coloured type of hard wearing fabric so are fairly private anyway. Once on the Balcony we had a great view across the Bay towards the Visitor Centre on the other side. It is a pity there aren't any all-weather chairs that could be left out on the balcony as it would be nice to sit out there. The balconies are quite wide but not that deep, but could accommodate a couple of small ch
airs. We took the desk chair which was a bit awkward and meant one of us still had to stand up!! Although we did not use the spa, we were impressed by the fact that there is a direct lift straight down to it, avoiding having to use the normal lift in your bathrobe and slippers, or with wet hair, along with guests in their smart attire! That evening we had made a reservation in Tides restaurant which is stated as being a Marco Pierre White restaurant, although I am sure the influence he has is minimal. We were pounced upon as we entered the bar, and shown to our seat, and asked if we would be eating in the restaurant. We ordered two cocktails, and were also given the restaurant menus. This may be a particular personal preference but I hate having to decide and order my main meal while I am in the bar - much preferring to be seated in the restaurant at the time I booked the table and then decide. I am not sure if it is me who is wrong here, but anyway, I don't like it. Our cocktails were extremely good and for a 5 star hotel extremely reasonably priced at £6.50. The Long Island Iced Tea was equally as good as the first and best I sampled at the Crest Hotel at Heathrow years back. It is funny that at that time if was a Forte Hotel, and obviously the skill to make great cocktails has a long heritage in Forte establishments!! We started to look at the menu, reluctantly, and then ordered. Unfortunately we were not given the daily Market Menu which is a fixed price 2 or 3 course menu. We were only given the slightly more expensive A La Carte, and assumed that the Market Menu was not available, but looking back I wished we had asked, in case they were trying it on!! My husband ordered Smoked Salmon and I ordered Wild Mushroom Risotto to start, followed by Shoulder of Lamb for my Husband and Chicken with Fricasse of Langoustine for myself. The waiter asked if we wanted side orders, which threw me somewhat, as I always associate ordering sid
e orders as something mid range restaurants do to make more money and when they haven't thought through the main courses properly as self contained items. Therefore I asked if the main courses really needed side orders, and the Waiter replied that they were 'rather meat based dishes' and that that was 'Marco's Style' which was funny really as he said it as if Marco Pierre White cooked the meals!! I don't think anyone who dines in good restaurants expects main courses to have 'Meat and Three Veg' in this day and age, but we were persuaded to order some new potatoes and broccoli, rather uninspiring additions at that. We were asked whether we wanted still or sparkling water - no mention of normal tap water. We said we wanted still, assuming (stupidly) that this was part of the service. After a while, we were invited to go to our table, near the window in the Restaurant. The restaurant is very stylish and wet lit, with sweeping views across the Bay. We were brought an appetiser 'Compliments of the Chef' which was a very pleasant roasted vegetable timbale. Then the Waiter brought some bread, but didn't tell us what kind he had. I asked for a 'brown of some sort' which seemed to cause him much amusement as he presented me with a roll saying 'I think this is a brown of some sort', saying to my husband 'would you like a brown of some sort too?'. I was definitely being mocked. My husband and I don't always appear the kind of people who go to decent hotels and restaurants a lot, and I must admit UK hotels in even lowly categories seem to go very much on appearances, and I definitely think they thought we were gauche and inexperienced, which is a bit annoying. It is something that never happens at Fairmont. Our wine arrived shortly after, but we were still finishing our cocktails, so the Waiter said he would return to pour it later. The starters were extremely good, but the critic
ism I have is of their size. They were rather large, and although of course you can leave some, it isn't what you expect of a good restaurant to feel full after the first course. I distinctly felt they were offering what they thought people expected - quantity for their money, which wasn't the case with us. The quality however was excellent - my risotto was lovely and moist, with just about the right amount of richness and cheesiness. My husband's smoked salmon was classically presented, and was also quite a generous portion. The main courses were well presented, and were also larger than you may get at similar restaurants. Apart from the main meat in the dish, various vegetables were included, as I had originally assumed, and being pressured to order side orders seemed even more silly. The actual main courses were well constructed, good flavours, cooked perfectly and were what you would describe as 'proper' restaurant food. The new potatoes and broccoli were just that, no twist, and were superfluous. We were now resigned to pouring our own wine, as although the water kept getting topped up, the wine seemed to be forgotten. For dessert I ordered a Creme Vanille which was superb and was served with deliciously moist cherries. My husband chose the poached figs, and was very impressed. Both desserts were very artistic creations, in particular the Creme Vanille, which had a huge twisted wafer rising tower-like from the plate. The total cost was £127 including service, which did seem a little steep but it wasn't until we moved on to the renowned and justifiably lauded Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, (again both ordering 3 courses, but with main course of lobster, and having 2 good ports afterwards), and the bill was only £157 that we began to realise that Tides Restaurant was perhaps overpriced. I think the Marco Pierre White name allows the hotel to add on another 20% to what they would ordinarily charge, which I gue
ss is a good business move on their part! We were charged nearly £4 for the bottle of water which was pretty expensive, and we wished we had just asked for tap water. I also have a feeling that we were overcharged anyway - neither of us studied the bill, as this always seems a bit naff, but we weren't given a copy either, and I think there was a mistake somewhere. I have asked the hotel for a copy of the bill (five days ago) and am still waiting. I think our original statement that the service would either make or break the St David's was spot on - it did. The service is a total contrast. The general hotel service is faultless, and even slightly over the top. I felt the difference between staying at comparable standard hotels elsewhere of a larger size, in that we were pounced on every time we walked through the door with any kind of large bag. They were so eager to please, it was a bit embarrassing sometimes. At the other extreme the service in the restaurant let the hotel down, both because they failed to deliver the little touches like pouring the wine, and also because you get the distinct impression they were trying to increase your bill at every point - not offering tap water, pressuring you to have side orders. The staff seemed to be enjoying their work, but the customer did seem a bit of an afterthought. Although having service included is very convenient, I do wonder whether if the staff had to earn their tip, they would be less sarcastic and underhand and perhaps try that little bit harder. Also we wondered whether the service in the Restaurant would be different at weekends, when the hotel is no doubt catering for tourists and leisure travellers. Because we dined on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was catering for primarily business travellers of the expense account kind, and it is possible the staff are in a less customer focussed frame of mind at this time. Despite my somewhat outspoken criticisms of Tides Resta
urant, I would have no hesitation in returning to the St David's, or any other Rocco Forte Hotel. It offered intimate service but without being stuffy, which is a rarity in the UK. The area is still being regenerated and I am sure the hotel isn't as busy now as it will be in the future, and maybe then the restaurant staff in particular will stop seeing guests solely as pay checks. I am looking forward to staying at another Rocco Forte hotel in November in Manchester and will be very interested whether in a big city with loads of competition on the doorstep whether the service in the restaurant is more like you would expect. The hotel in itself including the rooms are great, and I enjoyed my stay. It could never compare to St Edmund's House in Padstow, but it succeeded in being an impressive first stop. ************** UPDATE After some indecision as to whether various minor irritations warranted a letter of complaint, I decided to drop Rocco Forte Hotels a letter, explaining our dissatisfaction with the restaurant service in particular. If we had not been so impressed with the Hotel as a whole, we may have just put our little problems down to experience, and as is often the case, just avoided the chain in future. I think with the case of Rocco Forte Hotels, this would be nothing more than shooting ourselves in the foot! This morning I received an extremely reassuring letter from the St David's Hotel, apologising but not condoning the manner of the Waiter, including a copy of our restaurant bill as we had requested, which I am happy to say was in fact correct. They also confirmed that the room we had been given was a Junior Suite, but apologising if the description on their website was a little misleading. All my minor points had been addressed and I am again impressed by their attitude. We have been offered an upgrade to a Deluxe Riverside Suite on our forthcoming visit to Sister hotel The Lowry in Manch
ester (or a Master Suite at The St David's in the future). We are very much looking forward to our trip to The Lowry (even more than before) and I am extremely optimistic that any problems we encountered were not usual. (The point about the Junior Suite still stands though - and I would advise that you don't expect North American style layout). Today I telephoned Susan Anderson of the St David's to arrange my upgrade, and found her extremely helpful and customer focussed.