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Sometimes I think finding a hotel in the UK can be a pretty depressing business! For years wed been fruitlessly searching for of a chain of hotels that we could rely on or recommend. Apart from spending an arm and a leg at some renowned golf resort or swanky London address, there didnt seem to be any chains that you could look forward to staying at with complete confidence. The papers are full of the Hotel du Vin chain but from my experience of one, I was extremely disappointed. So we looked forward to our stay at the Newcastle Malmaison with a little trepidation. This chain is sometimes put in the same category as the Hotel du Vin properties, but with much less dewy eyed respect! (Since our stay in fact Malmaison have taken over the Hotel du Vin chain).
We booked our one night stay quite a few months in advance and found the responses to our e-mail queries very helpful and efficient. We booked a Chateau Suite at a rate of £165 per night excluding breakfast. We toyed with the idea of booking a normal room, but this being our first trip away with our 3 month old daughter and having just come from Slaley Hall staying in a spacious lodge, we thought we might appreciate some extra space. At weekends you can get a standard room for around £100 including breakfast.
The Malmaison is situated on the Newcastle Quayside just a stones throw away from the new Millennium footbridge. It is housed in an an attractive old warehouse building which gives the hotel a lot of character. There is car parking in the public car park behind which is a little inconvenient, but at £2 for the day cant really be sniffed at.
We arrived in the morning and went to see if our room was ready which it was unfortunately not. When we arrived back after 3pm we still had a little wait, which with a small baby wanting her feed was starting to become a bit annoying, but soon enough we were given our key and were on our way. The check in staff were quick and efficient despite the room not being ready. Our dinner reservation was not mentioned when we checked in however, which you may have expected from other service-orientated hotels..
We had requested a room at the front of the hotel, although I am unsure if any of the Chateau Suites actually are. Our room was actually at the side looking along the River Tyne towards the Tyne Bridge so actually was a very nice view, although a view across the Millennium Bridge would have been even nicer! We noticed when we checked in that the cot we had requested was not in the room, but a quick phone call rectified this and a strange laundry cart type contraption arrived that was masquerading as a cot!
In our large square open plan suite, the décor was very now with neutral beige and cream striped carpets and curtains, cream walls and very dark brown chequered effect furniture. The artistic edge of these hotels though was shown by the little touches, black and white framed local photos on the walls, fresh exotic flowers, black and white striped tall headboard and chequered cushions setting off the crisp white bed linen as well as the almost obligatory woollen throw. The windows also had natural blinds and the room benefited from a large black sofa and subdued lighting. The room contained the normal facilities plus a CD player and air conditioning. These touches certainly set it apart from the Hotel du Vin we stayed at in Winchester where we didnt even have a clock!
The bathroom was large and it was great to have a large separate shower. It seemed a very Malmaison bathroom, quite sleek and sexy.
Although we were being accompanied by our daughter, we still werent prepared to forego our usual pre-dinner cocktails, but unfortunately there was no non smoking area in the bar, but the helpful bar tender found us a spot at the edge of the bar near the restaurant where we wouldnt be bothered by smoke. The bar was very intimate and cosy with subdued lighting very classy. I didnt hesitate long before choosing a Kir Royale, my very favourite when it is done well, which it most definitely was, carefully poured with the champagne resting at the top. The price of £8.95 wasnt shocking either. My husband chose the house champagne which was veuve Cliquot, and fairly reasonably priced at £7.95.
Before we left the bar, our daughter had fallen asleep fantastic, so we then made our way through to the restaurant. This had windows on about three sides, giving a good view of the surrounding frivolities outside. And with Newcastle there usually is some good people-watching to do! Unusually for us we both opted for the set menu at £12.95 for 2 courses. I chose the Plum Tomato Stack with Parmesan and Rocket. This could have been uninspiring and bland but was actually perfect, very tasty and really well executed.
For main course I chose Chicken with Mustard Mash which again was a huge surprise. I usually choose chicken when I am stuck for anything else and often I am underwhelmed. This was lovely though, the chicken was cooked just right and tasted like corn-fed. The mustard mash was an ideal accompaniment I was well pleased. My husband chose the Trout for starter and the Risotto for main course. He was equally happy with his choices, although he was longingly watching the group of men on the next table tuck into a very appetising looking steak their whole crab for starter looked equally inviting. Next time . We both commented though that for a set menu this was outstanding. We tend not to choose the set/table DHote menus because you mostly end up feeling short changed and that you have been given less exciting food, but here that was not the case at all.
My Vanilla Ice Cream with Hot Valrhona Chocolate Sauce was the perfect end to the meal such classic comfort food, that you dont expect to find on a restaurant menu, and with the great chocolate sauce, it was just right.
When we were exploring on our way back to our room, we noticed an intriguing large room in the centre of the building on our floor, decked out like a private lounge. Our key card got us into it, but it didnt appear to be used much. We enquired about it when we checked out and were told it was indeed just a lounge area. It is a pity we werent made aware of it, as these private floors with lounges are so a la mode currently that Malmaison were really doing themselves a disservice not to brag about it. I notice now they do mention it on their website, so maybe it was a work in progress when we were there.
Our total bill, for the suite, dinner, wine and pre-dinner cocktails plus tips and parking came to just over £255. For a well respected city centre hotel with great food, this didnt seem half bad to me.
I would definitely stay at a Malmaison again. We decided against it on a trip to Birmingham recently instead opting for the Hyatt mainly because of the swimming pool, but in hindsight I really wish we had stayed at the Malmaison. I would definitely stay next time I go to a City where a Malmaison operates. In my opinion, there is no comparison between the Hotel du Vin and Malmaison chains, one seems to rely on its upmarket trendy but somewhat shabby chic image, and the other just gives stylish, modern surroundings, with good service I know which I prefer.
We bought the Graco Metrosport travel system from Mothercare a few months before our daughter was born. It cost £180 and I must admit we didn't do an awful lot of comparisons. We were pretty restricted as we had a Mini One and so had very limited boot space. We were attracted to this system as it had won various awards from some baby magazines and also it was quite small when folded, and so meant we didn't have to change the car! We did try the car seat in the back of our car before we bought it, but unfortunately it didn't fit very well with the car seat base (that can stay permanently fixed in your car). We were happy though just to use the car seat and fix it with the seatbelt every time. Before our baby was born we decided to change our car anyway and thought that this would solve all our problems, as we imagined we could then use the car seat base. Ironically we seemed to have chosen one of the few cars that the car seat base doesn't fit it. The base has a retractable leg that rests on the footwell, and the Audi A2 we chose has very deep footwells so we still had to fix the car seat in the car every time with the seat belt. When we first tried the car seat, we were absolutely confused as to how it actually fitted. The instructions were of little use, but eventually after quite a few attempts it has become second nature. However, it is a fiddle as you need to retract the maximum amount of seat belt and thread it through various areas on the seat. If you accidentally let go of the seat belt it tightens around the car seat and is a real pain to remove, and start again. Also I would imagine if you used the car seat every day (we only use it a couple of times a week) it may start to scuff the seat covers of your car if you are unable to use the permanent base. Regardless of the car you have you will probably find there isn't a lot of room between the back of the front seat and the back of the car seat. I am lu
cky as I'm only 5ft 2" so my seat is never that far back. My husband informs me that you would have no chance if you happen to own a Bentley Continental GT (but then I guess you would have a rather more expensive car seat!!). Since our purchase I have read information about the Mamas and Papas range, and although they may have problems all of their own, their car seat that is compatible with their pushchairs has a rather neat compact base that has no retractable leg and so I imagine would be much more user friendly. It also must be a real advantage to be able to leave the car seat in the car (say when you go shopping) and just unstrap your baby if you don't want to take the car seat with you. I now unstrap my baby but the car seat is still attached with the seat belt, so it is a real fiddle getting her out! The car seat can also be used as a rocker for indoors. Our daughter quite liked this for the first 3 months, but now she is bigger it seems awful to strap her in all the time, but if not she shuffles out and the way the chair is designed it tips up and she ends up lying on the floor with the chair hovering above her. It is a pity you can't make it more secure if you don't want it to rock. As far as the actual pushchair goes, again it was a bit of a trial getting it all set up. I don't think it's my fading brain cells during pregnancy but everything seems really complicated. It took three of us to work out how the raincover fitted! The metrosport package did include lots of extras like the cosytoe and rucksack so is very good value, although I doubt I will ever use the rucksack. The good thing about the system is that you can attach the car seat to the pushchair so your small baby can face you. It clips in quite easily, although there is a fiddly velcro strap that needs attaching every time. Also the handle of the car seat should clip over the tray to clip it in place, but ours stopped doing this
a few months ago. We have now started using the pushchair without the car seat in position, but the straps are fairly loose, and our baby is nearly 5 months old. It is supposed to be suitable from birth but I would be very afraiod that the baby would slip out! The system folds very small, but it is a bit fiddly if you use the pushchair without the car seat as the seat back needs lowering before you can fold it. Then when you put it up again, you need to secure the seat in the upright position again. It is a bit fiddly and no good if you have to fold and unfold it a lot. It is also quite heavy and hard to carry, and you certainly wouldn't want to carry it far. I am now considering purchasing a smaller lighter buggy for holidays etc, and I can imagine that I will then soon end up not using the Metrosport at all. Especially I am looking forward to my daughter being big enough to have a forward facing car seat that will have isofix so it can stay in the car at all times. If I had my time again I think I would buy the smallest lightest buggy type system that had a compatible car seat with permanent base that fitted in all cars. Either that or just get a car seat that is suitable from birth to 4 years (rear and forward facing), keep it in the car at all times and get a suitable from birth buggy (and a small rocker or something for indoors). Maybe next time!
Such is my weekend boredom that on any given Saturday or Sunday, I find myself looking through the Travel Supplement of the broadsheet newspaper I have to hand that day, playing the 'Hotel du Vin Challenge'. The idea is simple, just browse through the pages and see how quickly you can spot some mention of the hotel group. You'd be amazed just how little of a challenge it actually is. I don't think I've leafed through the Guardian or Telegraph over the past few months without some mention of this group, ranging from full page reports awash with numerous compliments, fleeting references to the hotel in any report mentioning a city where they happen to have a hotel or various top tens where you are sure to find one of the hotels or the group in general scooping one of the awards. Hence you'd have to have been living on Mars not to have heard of the group, and thanks to the unashamedly complimentary slant, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Hotel du Vin group had single-handedly masterminded a revolution in the hotel industry never seen before. Anyway, I am ashamed to say we were not immune to such propaganda, and full of expectation, not to mention much curiosity, we had for some time intended to stay at one of the hotels. Incidentally the hotels are based in six cities around the UK; Brighton, Birmingham, Bristol, Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate and Winchester. It was strange to find a hotel group that nobody ever said anything even slightly negative about. When we planned a trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed we decided that we would satisfy our curiosity with a stay at their newest hotel (at that time) in Brighton. We booked over the telephone (no online bookings!) at a rate of £130 for the standard room, not including breakfast. The rate also did not include car parking that came in at a steep £15 extra per day. A little closer to the date of our stay, we decided to change our booking over to the Hotel du Vin in
Winchester. We were tempted by the slightly more reasonable rate of £110 and also the fact that the hotel had a free car park. More importantly Winchester had a Fullers pub and the pull of London Pride and Summer Ale was just too much of a temptation!. We arrived for our two night stay, easily finding the hotel which is pretty much in the centre of Winchester, just a short walk up the High Street, on Southgate Street. The hotel is housed in a traditional Georgian style building, with a courtyard behind ideal for summer drinks. We parked our car in the leafy car park and went into the hotel through the garden via the rear entrance. The style of the reception area is very low-key, much more like an entrance hallway in a house with a desk stuck in the corner. The desk is very low and so you stand around feeling rather awkward as people push past you trying to get out of the front door, and waiters hurry through to the wine cellar and restaurant. You could be forgiven for thinking this was some subtle way of making guests feels less powerful as you stand awkwardly at the desk like a schoolchild waiting for a reprimand from a teacher! We were checked in by the rather unfriendly young receptionist and shown to our room, up a narrow flight of stairs and round some winding corridors with snakes of coir matting shifting under our feet. The walls are lined with numerous prints and the overall effect is quite homely if a little cluttered. All the rooms are named after wines, and we also noticed one named after our beloved Fullers! I guess if you get a room named after a brand of Champagne you've struck lucky; ours was Villa Maria, a pretty good not too expensive wine (so the standard room then!). You really need to worry when you get the Blue Nun room (joke). I was immediately struck by the size of the room, it was rather cramped. On entering through the door, the fitted wardrobe was on the right, meaning you couldn't open the wardrobe an
d the door at the same time. Straight ahead was the door to the bathroom. We excitedly anticipated the bathroom as every review you read raves (and I mean RAVES) about the bathrooms. Turning left you were immediately in the bedroom, which was a roughly square shape with three tall windows overlooking the street. The bed took up most of the space with two bedside cabinets alongside, one containing a minibar. We had also heard glowing references to the huge beds that Hotel du Vin had, but ours was just a standard double ? quite a letdown. On the right hand side of the room was the dressing table and also a small unit with the small TV on top. The room did have a small CD player, which looked to be the only addition to the room above the norm. We also had a tall free standing fan in the room, as the weekend was quite hot, but this made very little difference ? the room was HOT and stuffy. It only served to make the room look more cluttered and took up valuable space. We opened all the windows in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. The long anticipated bathroom was a shock ? tiny. We were left dazed and confused as to the various phrases we had read over and again about the wonderful Hotel du Vin bathrooms. As soon as you opened the door you were hit by the intense heat in there. The shower was over the bath, whereas you would have expected a separate shower in a hotel with this reputation. It was so compact that you felt quite claustrophobic and the sweltering heat turned the room into a sauna as soon as you tried to have a bath. There was very little space to place your toiletries, and I managed to knock the shower gel and shampoo provided onto the floor as I tried to manouevre in there. (The toiletries provided are actually quite appealing, in glass wine bottle shape bottles - amazingly I didn't have broken glas all over the floor!) Our first night was pretty unpleasant. The room continued to be hot, the fan had very little ef
fect, only caused a rather disturbing noise and the shouting and hullabaloo from outside meant that you had to choose between being kept awake by the heat or the noise if you opened the windows. I can't remember the last time I have spent such an uncomfortable night because of the heat in the room ? there was not a breath of air anywhere. Oh how we yearned for air conditioning. It is amazing how soon you get used to hotels with air conditioning, and whichever way you look at it, in a hotel that has such praise heaped upon it, you don't expect anything to make your stay actually uncomfortable. We soon realised that the room lacked a clock as well, so you had no idea what time it was when you woke up in the night ? not great when you have to be somewhere early in the morning and don't want to oversleep. I think the last time this has been a problem was years ago when certain Travelodges/Travel Inns sometimes did not have clocks. Even these lodges have realised that this is a basic item every guest now expects. We spent a day out at the Festival (with a detour en route to attempt to clean the car after the roosting birds in the 'leafy' hotel car park had well and truly christened (i.e. covered) the car in a way only roosting birds can!). That seconf evening we had chosen to dine in the hotel bistro. We enjoyed a cocktail in the garden which a very pleasant location ? and the cocktail was good too. The cocktail menu is a classy one with a good selection of champagnes and champagne based cocktails, as you would expect. I chose a Kir Royale, and my husband one of the other appealing champagne cocktails. We then made our way inside to the bistro which appeared quite small, and we were rather unfortunately seated at a tiny table right next to the bar, which made you feel that you weren't really dining in the restaurant at all. We did manage to order a bottle of Canadian wine though, which was one of the highlights, and a choice w
hich seemed to impress the Sommelier ? there's a first time for everything! I ordered tempura prawns for starter which were good if not fantastic, and were quite a generous portion. This seemed a pretty basic bar-food type item to find on this French inspired menu. I felt the edge had definitely been taken off my main course. My husband chose Rosti with Roquefort Cheese which he was very pleased with. For main course I chose a chicken dish with fine beans and baby onions. The chicken was nicely cooked and the accompaniments well chosen, but in style it did remind me of a dish I had eaten at Rick Stein's St Petroc's Bistro in Padstow, and this only served to demonstrate that the dish was not as good as it could have been. It was a bit like a poor substitute for the original. My husband's Dover Sole was good, but again only served to highlight similar dishes that he had enjoyed more at other restaurants. Overall though my husband said he really enjoyed his meal, but I did come away feeling a little disappointed. The complex richness of the flavours of my meal seemed to show a lack of finesse and I could think of various similar dishes I had eaten elsewhere which were much more carefully constructed. After another disturbed night, we checked out on Sunday morning, for the first time in more years than I can remember, looking forward to my own bedroom and my own bathroom at home. We mentioned the fact that the room did not have a clock, and the receptionist (now slightly better humoured) said that no, none of them did. What a really weird idea. Such a basic amenity, and they don't even have it! We did notice whilst strolling in the garden that the hotel does have some garden rooms in a small stable-like converted outbuilding with lovely cottage gardens outside and places to sit outside your door on a small patio. These would have been absolutely charming, and if I were to return to the hotel it would only be in
one of those rooms. It seemed strange that neither on the hotel's website or on the little-more-than-useless hotel guides these rooms are not mentioned. Talk about a well kept secret. I am left dumbfounded by the press reports about these hotels. I can only assume that some journalists are getting some pretty good backhanders or freebies to constantly promote the brand. Although the hotel did have a certain shabby charm, and it definitely was the place to be with well-to-do or wealthy clientele (Ian Botham was there when we visited), I feel that the praise is disproportionate. We really regret the fact that we changed our booking to the Winchester hotel, as perhaps the new and modern influenced hotel in Brighton would be totally different to the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester. A couple of weeks after our stay the Brighton Hotel won the best hotel in the UK award in another of those newspaper polls, and it turns out the rooms have air conditioning and plasma TV's! Whether all these incentives actually exist or whether they are like the huge beds and amazing bathrooms that we found were non-existent, who knows, but I would be curious to find out. If I was visiting down south, it would be nice to have a stop in Brighton, just to satisfy our curiosity once and for all. I guess that would settle whether we avoid the chain at all costs in future. Next year we are staying at a Malmaison for the first time and I will be really interested to see how that chain compares, being in a similar 'trendy, boutique hotel style' category. The brand does lack that certain something from beginning to end. The website though attractive is of little practical use. The room rates are extremely vague and there is no way to book online. The room facilities are not mentioned at all, and only sound-bites (amazing showers etc etc) exist. No more useful information is contained within the tiny hotel guides that you can request online, so before you sta
y you assume the hotel must have everything you expect, only to find this is not the case when you arrive. So now as I play the weekly Hotel du Vin challenge, it is with a certain sense of cynicism and amusement ? I would say the real challenge is to see through the sound-bites and propaganda!
Think of the concept of restaurants being owned by celebrities and it hardly conjures up an image of fine dining. Thoughts of Planet Hollywood spring to mind, with token celebrity figureheads who've probably never dined in any of their restaurants (apart from for the photo opportunities)! So it was intriguing what Jacques Villeneuve's restaurant in Montreal, Newtown, would be like and the signs were very promising. Maybe when Formula One stars branch out into the hospitality industry, they have more insight - Nigel Mansell has a quite well respected hotel and golf club in Devon, and David Coulthard's Columbus Hotel in Monaco seems to avoid being overly and prohibitively expensive, but still has those luxury touches that you imagine Formula One racing drivers would choose for themselves. So, would Jacques Villeneuve's restaurant and bar concept in Montreal hit all the right buttons too? Our first impressions in 2002 certainly make us think so. Newtown is actually more than a restaurant - it is four different concepts on four different floors. The nightclub is in the basement, the lounge serving snacks and drinks is at street level, the main restaurant is on the first floor and on the top floor is a terrace serving drinks and snacks. Last year, about a year after it opened, we visited for a drink, and were totally blown away by the place. On Grand Prix Sunday the bar was heaving, intoxicatingly noisy with music and good times. The whole place was fashionable and popular, the place to be - in true North American style though this was an inclusive type of trendiness, not dependant on the right bank balance, status or appearance. Think Met Bar without the morons!!!! I tore myself away that night and we made a point of promising ourselves that next time (whenever that would be) we would go back to the restaurant this time. Newtown is on Crescent Street, a busy street full of restaurants and bars. The rather traditional stone
façade of the building contrasts with the modern themes going on inside. A large central bar dominates the lounge, with seats near the large windows looking out over the street (if it's not too busy that you can get a seat that is!). Many of the restaurants on Crescent Street are on the casual side and some like the Hard Rock Café can hardly be described as challenging or upmarket dining options. Here Newtown is a breath of fresh air and just what the area needed. On Grand Prix weekend the whole street is pedestrianised with loads of Grand Prix related events going on and so it really is the place to be. When we decided at the last minute to go to Canada this year, partly for the Grand Prix, we telephoned Newtown to make a reservation. This was only a month beforehand, so on Friday and Saturday nights, there weren't any tables available between 6 and 10pm. We contacted the Queen Elizabeth Hotel's Concierge, but they couldn't get us a table either, so they booked us a table for 8pm Sunday night instead. The restaurant told our Concierge that Jacques was dining there at 8pm too - we took this with a very large pinch of salt. Newtown has a website (at www.newtown.ca) and although it's a pretty slow site, once you get onto the pages, it does set the scene and the menus certainly whetted our appetite. The décor is very modern and up to date, with clean lines and subtle lighting and colours. A partition in the centre of the room contains displays of wine bottles, and gives an effective dividing line. The space is reminiscent of any high-end fashionable restaurant and perhaps reminded me more of fine dining in cosmopolitan restaurants in Europe. Despite its obvious trendy tendencies, the clientele was pleasantly mixed, ranging from well-dressed couples and businesspeople to corporate groups and race fans. Although the restaurant is owned partly by Jacques Villeneuve, there are (happily) no references to it in the
restaurant. I think some friends of ours last year expected (and were perhaps disappointed) that it would be a themed bar and restaurant (perhaps with racing memorabilia adorning the walls. Happily not!). The whole restaurant breathes style and quality. As is most often the case, the waiting staff appeared a little stuffy to begin with, but as the evening went on the professionalism took over and we forgot that we ever found them aloof. Service was polite and discreet. After being seated we were politely told that the table would be needed by 10pm. This is the first time this has happened to us, but I felt glad that the restaurant was being up front about it. So many restaurants only allow you an hour and a half and then you only realise this when you're rushed to order or your courses follow on quickly. I appreciated them putting their cards on the table, and allowing us to be in control by deciding whether we wanted to order quickly and pace ourselves through the evening. Whichever way you looked at it, two hours for a meal in a popular and trendy restaurant such as this was atypically generous. We ordered two cocktails. Although there wasn't a specific cocktail menu, we had decided what we would like so ordered a Gin Martini and a Cosmopolitan. The bar downstairs is a cool cocktail venue and so we were determined to try a couple while we were dining in the restaurant. Both cocktails were of normal size, and very good. The Cosmopolitan?s mix of flavours did not disappoint as it often does in less good cocktail venues, and the Martini was also superb. When we got the bill later on we would realise that the cocktails were less than $8 each - wow. This is probably the least we have ever paid for a cocktail anywhere - and for that quality - amazing. We perhaps rushed to order more than was absolutely necessary, but we did notice that people who ordered after us were served around the same time, so we didn't feel like w
e had hurried things on too much and compromised our enjoyment. The menu is not particularly large but contains a very good mix of apparently well constructed dishes. There are modern as well as Oriental/Eastern twists to the menu, but it resists the temptation of trying to be all things to all people, and ends up being a very good high-class restaurant selection. For starter I ordered the Shrimp and Avocado Salad ($16) which sounded an extremely simple and attractive option, and knowing the high quality of Canadian seafood, one which I was looking forward to. My Husband opted for the Warm Goats Cheese and Fingerling Potatoes with Olive Oil and Sunflower Sprouts ($15). For main course I decided to try the intriguing Rock Cornish Hen with Herb Risotto ($29) and my husband was tempted by the Rack of Lamb with Spinach Cheddar Gratin Parmentier ($38). It is apparent from these prices that the costs were fairly representative of a good restaurant, and substantially better value than most modern restaurants of this type in the UK. Having ordered quite promptly, I was a little worried that our starters would arrive before we had made much of an impression on our cocktails. Although our wine (a bottle of Robert Mondavi Californian Chardonnay costing $48) came quite quickly, and was poured before we had finished our drinks, you can't blame the waitress for assuming we were in a bit of a hurry! We waited probably an ideal amount of time before our starters arrived. My starter was everything I had hoped. Its simplicity was its strongest quality combined with fresh good quality ingredients. The shrimps were plump and perfectly cooked, the avocado ripe and flavoursome. The accompanying dressing was a twist on the traditional Marie Rose, but of a thinner consistency. The creaminess with a slight tart quality was exactly what the dish needed, and I totally enjoyed the whole dish. Any reservations I may have had about the restaur
ant being more style than substance had evaporated. My husband's baked goats cheese surprisingly came in breadcrumbs, but this in no way detracted from the dish or was a disappointment in the slightest. The fingerling potatoes that crop up on lots of Canadian menus were a pleasant and delicious accompaniment. At this point we were both pretty pleased we had made the effort to visit Newtown, and impressed by the atmosphere, surroundings and especially the food. During our starters our cynicism was disproved, when Jacques Villeneuve and his party arrived at the restaurant. We were impressed and surprised that someone like Jacques would make such a low-key entrance, and a celebrity of less integrity would have insisted on some type of private dining instead of just sitting with everyone else in the restaurant. A few people obviously had noticed he was there, but everyone was mature and respectful enough that he was able to just be like anyone else. Also a restaurant of a lower quality may have been concentrating so much on its famous owner that the other diners could go jump, but at Newtown we felt that there was no difference in the service, and that we certainly weren't being ignored or neglected in the slightest. We were left for another very well timed interval before our main courses arrived. It surely is the sign of the best restaurants that the timing is immaculate. My Rock Cornish Hen was a very pleasant experience, with the quality of the meat and the cooking spot-on. I wasn?t sure what to expect, not knowing exactly what 'Rock Cornish Hen' was, but it turned out to be a whole small bird, similar to a poussin. Not usually keen on the dark meat of poultry, I was bowled over by this dish. The highlight of the dish however, (not to detract from the poultry in any way) was the herb risotto. A good risotto cannot be beaten, and a fantastic one leaves you yearning for it weeks after. This risotto came into the
second category - perfectly moist, moreishly cheesy and delicious in every way. I wish I could get some flown over right now! The main course just served to reinforce my feelings about the restaurant getting things just right, as not only were the portions well-judged, not too big or too small, but the presentation was modern and uncluttered without being overly artistic. My husband's main course was similarly impressive, and he was more than a little surprised by the overall quality of the dish. He commented that this was more like the kind of dish you would expect from a top European restaurant, and I would agree that only the very best of Canadian restaurants (Canoe etc) come close to this quality. Having enjoyed our starters and main courses immensely we could not find room for a dessert, which all appeared on the rich and substantial side. With food of this quality we didn't want to risk leaving feeling uncomfortably full. The total cost for the meal including a cocktail each, a bottle of wine, water, a starter and main course each plus tip totalled about $220 (just less than £100). This whichever way you look at it is amazing value. A similar standard of meal in Europe would cost up to double that, and so all in all there is nothing I can say to criticise the whole experience. In the past we have had some difficulty finding a really good place to eat in Montreal. This year we did find a lovely (and amazingly well priced) restaurant in the Old Port (Restaurant du Vieux Port), but Newtown was the answer to all our prayers. It is definitely the best meal we have had in Montreal, and we would go back as a matter of course whenever we are in Montreal. Even compared to other fantastic meals we have had all over Canada, of which there have been plenty, Newtown holds its own. It has managed to pull off the seemingly impossible, a trendy popular venue, inclusive with a feeling of exclusivity, modern attractive surroundings and c
rucially the quality, presentation and style of food that doesn?t disappoint. Before we visited we read a few less than complimentary comments left on a website - this puzzled us then and baffles us now! I know the opening of the restaurant caused a bit of controversy amongst the francophones in Montreal (due to the anglicised name), and I guess there are a lot of people who want to think a restaurant owned by someone famous is rubbish. Comments were made saying that the prices were steep, but they were far from it, and again I think this is sour grapes among people who like to assume a rich person owning a restaurant must be ripping off all the customers. **************** The future of the Canadian Grand Prix is still a little dubious, and so I feel really happy that we did make the last minute decision to go again this year. It would have been a real shame to have missed out on going to Newtown at that time of year and the whole weekend was memorable in lots of ways ( in particular see the review for the Queen Elizabeth Hotel!). However, regardless of your reasons for being in Montreal, Grand Prix or no Grand Prix, a visit to Newtown is a must and although I can?t guarantee you'll rub shoulders with its most famous owner, I'm pretty sure everything else will be well worth the visit. Not only has Jacques Villeneuve proved his talent on the track, where he will be sadly missed next year, he has shown that as a businessman and restaurant owner he has pulled off something pretty spectacular. All I can say is that if Jacques concentrates on his business venture, perhaps Formula One's loss may be the restaurant goers gain!
This year we stayed for the third time at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. I have already written a general review of the hotel (which is in the 'Hotels in Montreal' section) but as this year we had a rather special room, I thought it warranted a review of its own! We made our reservation through the Presidents Club (the Fairmont frequent guest program) Gold Members hotline. Uncharacteristically indecisive, we only decided to try and get a reservation for Grand Prix weekend a month beforehand. We had nearly given up whilst surfing the net for a room at the Queen Elizabeth (our first and only choice), when as a last resort we decided to try the members hotline. We were amazed that they found us a room, although the hotel appeared technically full, and this extra benefit of the loyalty program impressed us, as if we could be much more impressed! The rate was $429 per night plus taxes for Grand Prix weekend, (a little more than £200 per night) which was rather steep, considering you usually can get a room there for about half that. We were ecstatic though, as 3 star properties that were available at that late stage were charging similar prices. As we had a certificate entitling us to an upgrade to a suite, I e-mailed the hotel prior to our stay to ask if we might use it, and requesting the view we would like from the standard room if we could not. I did not get a reply, but while my husband was talking to the concierge soon after to make a dinner reservation, he was told we had been given a suite. We were very very excited! Suddenly £200 a night was looking very reasonable indeed. We had known since the first time we stayed at the hotel that it had a very big claim to fame; in that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their Bed-In for Peace in suite 1742 at the hotel in 1969, and recorded 'Give Peace a Chance' there. In fact last year when we were staying at the hotel we even sought out the room, taking a photo of the
door, thinking that would be the closest we would get to it! The weekend before our trip, it occurred to us that it might be a good idea to ask if suite 1742 was in the same room category as the one we had been allocated. We put our cheeky hats on, and mentioned that if this was the case, whether we might be allocated that particular suite. After I sent the e-mail, I cringed - how presumptuous to assume such a great suite would be available that weekend, especially to nobodies like us. We received an e-mail back much to our surprise saying that the suite was available, but for the package that included champagne, fruit, breakfast on one morning and other little touches, it would cost $559 plus taxes per night. We noticed that our room rate viewable online had changed to this new package rate, and as we did not want to spend any more than the original $429, we e-mailed back to say this. We were sorry that we wouldn't be able to have the suite but glad that we had asked anyway. On entering the hotel again on our arrival, we noticed a big, and very welcome change since last year. The lobby area had been refurbished, which in my original review I mentioned was becoming necessary. The floor, which had had a bold (and increasingly dated) burgundy patterned carpet was now in a shiny marble effect, the square dark wooden (and depressing) columns have been replaced by stylish round cream coloured ones, and the whole area which used to be overpowered by an overload of wood is much more light and airy. All around the lobby is a wood effect fascia with effective uplighting and even the original flock wallpaper behind the reception desks doesn't jar any more. The ugly ceiling tiles have been removed and instead there is a modern light ceiling dotted with spotlights. Where some rather unappealing shops used to stand is now a really useful area with chairs and comfy sofas, and I am glad to say the Queen Elizabeth really looks the p
art now - such relatively simple alterations have had an amazing effect. We checked in, having psyched ourselves up to be bold and ask if the room was still available, but in the end we didn't have the nerve. As it happened the check in clerk said we had been upgraded to the John Lennon Suite anyway. On the way to the lifts we could barely contain our excitement. Never before had a room upgrade filled us with quite this much anticipation. What had started out as a last minute decision to come back to Canada this year was turning into something very special indeed. The room, 1742, is on the 17th floor, at the end of a corridor at the Boulevard Rene Levesque/Rue Mansfield corner of the building. Last year this room appeared very anonymous from the outside and if you hadn't known the significance of room 1742, you would have thought it was any other room. This year the room is distinguished by a door plate with the name 'John Lennon Suite' on it. On entering the room you are struck initially by the deep claret coloured carpet, the light coloured walls and the spacious entrance lobby with imposing chandelier. A hall table is positioned straight ahead between two double French doors leading to the two main rooms of the suite. Both of the French doors are set off by opulent rich coloured striped curtains. The only full length mirror in the suite is also in the lobby between the entrance door and the door to the connecting room. Off the lobby is a closet, kitchen/servery and the bathroom. There is also a door to the connecting room 1740 which appears (from the plan on the back of the door) to be an above average sized room, which I believe John Lennon also reserved in 1969 along with the small room 1738. The closet is amazingly compact considering the size of the suite, and doesn't allow a lot of room for your possessions, but the joy of suites is always that it isn't difficult to stow your b
elong ings away someplace else. The servery is a practical size with sink, minibar and lots of base and wall cupboards as well as wall shelving. This was really useful for preparing/storing items for picnics etc, and after having a couple of suites with such a servery, you wonder how you?ll ever manage without one again! The bathroom also off the lobby is similarly quite compact, probably the same size as bathrooms in other rooms in the hotel. We commented last year about the Fairmont Gold room that the bathroom was quite small, and it seems to be an idiosyncrasy of rooms at the hotel. Probably because of the era the hotel was built, little emphasis is put on huge bathrooms, a priority that seems to have come to the fore only in recent years. The bathroom however is stylishly appointed with black marble vanity tops and a rather small (even by my 5' 2" standard) shallow bath with shower above. However what would be a criticism in any other room fades into insignificance here - you have ample space that a compact bathroom is immaterial. You are kept well supplied, as always, with appealing Fairmont toiletries. The main space of the suite consists of the lounge and bedroom, both accessed through the French doors from the lobby. There are also French doors between these two main areas. The lounge area has a large window nearly the width of the room looking directly over the Reine de la Monde Cathedral, and with views looking directly down Boulevard Rene Levesque. This is the same view we very much enjoyed last year from our Fairmont Gold room, and it is really attractive. It is the kind of view that you can just look at for a long time without getting tired of it. Our friends after seeing our room last year made a point of requesting a view overlooking the cathedral this year, and it is definitely worth requesting. Unlike many North American cities, the downtown area isn?t dominated by many skyscrapers and the wide sweeping
streets co ntribute to better views from downtown hotels than perhaps in an equivalent city like Toronto. The lounge area was large with TV unit, sofa, chairs and coffee table, as well as a large work desk. The room is accentuated by various side tables and lamps. The large window has the same type of striped deep burgundy and rich coloured curtains as in the lobby, which are complemented by subtle green curtains behind that you could draw. The main centrepiece of the lounge is a large framed photo of the bed-in with gold disks and musical notation. The lounge has its own separate air conditioning, and was a really lovely place to relax. In fact relaxing and chilling out seemed to be the dominant temptation in this suite. The lounge has a clock radio/CD player, but is one of the standard hotel types (as opposed to the rather good Bose ones you sometimes get) and so the quality was appalling. I am sure John would not have approved at all! The other main room was the bedroom, which you entered through the French doors from the lobby or from the lounge. It was slightly smaller than the adjoining lounge area, but very generous nonetheless, with a window on the North side of the hotel. This looked directly over Boulevard Rene Levesque in the direction of Mont Royal towards the downtown commercial and shopping districts. The view from this window too was really great, as the impressive Sun Life building stood just across the street. Before our stay we had debated whether the view to request might be overlooking the cathedral or the Sun Life building. As it happened we got the best of both worlds. The bedroom benefits from a large (and high) wooden posted bed with stylish modern predominantly white with black trim bedcover. The bed and covers were exactly the same as we had in the Fairmont Gold room, and it was actually nice to have the modern style here in a suite that has purposely kept the same tones for the carpet and wa
lls as in 1969. A large comfy chair with footrest is placed in the corner between the two French doors and an ottoman is at the bottom of the bed. Another hefty wooden TV unit with drawer space is also in the bedroom area set at an angle in a corner of the room. Much to our surprise, we had also been given the extra items included in the suite package. Waiting for us in the room was a bottle of champagne, and a large fruit basket (with apples, bananas, strawberries, grapes, pear, kiwi fruit, mango and orange). Shortly after our arrival in the suite, a bellman brought us up a souvenir folder with some background information about the suite, lyrics from 'Give Peace a Chance' and a photograph. The Bellman made conversation for a few minutes, and told us he had actually been the member of staff who had checked John Lennon in 34 years ago. We also received a phone call to make arrangements for breakfast in our room on the following morning. The fact that we had not paid for the package but had been given the various benefits regardless was really appreciated and we again were blown away by the fantastic attitude to customer service always shown by Fairmont Hotels. Our breakfast arrived at the time we ordered and was set up for us properly in the lounge area on a really clever wheeled extendable table. We had been told beforehand that the breakfast was the same (or very similar) to the one ordered by John in 1969. The breakfast consisted of a cooked selection of scrambled eggs, bacon, seasoned potato slices, tomatoes and mushrooms. Large bowls of fruit salad were also provided along with thick toast and various jams and a 'Spanish Smile' - orange juice and honey. Having a suite really makes breakfast in the room a treat, as you are able to have the meal properly set up for you, and it certainly makes a change from loads of other hotels where you get a breakfast trolley just dumped in your room. We made a decision that
in future whenever we have a large suite like this (the one at The Lowry in Manchester was also ideal) we will order breakfast the first morning in the room - it really makes for a special start to the day. The room contained most items that other rooms in the hotel would have. A small hairdryer was provided, which was a slightly better idea than the nearly useless wall mounted hotel ones; the two separate air conditioning units were efficient and quiet. The minibar in the kitchen was the standard hotel type, maybe it could have benefited from being a slightly larger refrigerator type. Surprisingly in a room like this there was no safe, and we were disappointed that an umbrella wasn't provided as is usually the case in Fairmont Gold rooms, and that I would usually assume would also be the case in a special suite like this. As we got absolutely soaked on the Friday at First Qualifying, we tried to borrow an umbrella, only to find they had none left, so it is a pity there was not one in the room. An iron and board was provided in the compact closet, which is always a useful addition, and I can't really think of anything that was seriously lacking. Only small things would warrant criticism, mainly due to the facilities (minibar, bathroom etc) being exactly the same in this suite as in the other rooms, but I would challenge anyone to actually come away feeling anything other than total satisfaction with everything about the suite. With a room as important as this one, little things fade into insignificance. One little concern we had about the room was the connecting door to the adjacent room. This door had a lock on both sides, but our side must have been unlocked when we checked in. As a result one evening when we returned back it was obvious someone had been in the room, as it smelt of strong cigar smoke, and then at 3.45 in the morning we were woken up by the two men from the next room rampaging through our suite. This is qui
te disconcerting obviousl y! If you have this suite or any with a connecting door, I would definitely double ch eck that the door is locked when you arrive. Even this strange episode though couldn't mar our stay. We enjoyed immensely our four nights in the suite, and I constantly tried to remind myself about what a big deal all of it actually was. In the current climate of war and hate, it seemed exactly the right time to stay at a place where someone who wanted much better had also spent such a famous few days. Maybe even some karma may rub off on us. If you fancy staying somewhere a bit different I would definitely recommend suite 1742 - the opportunity of staying in a room with such significance is rare. It is surprising that the room doesn't feel like any other, 34 years on, and this I think is testament to the Queen Elizabeth keeping some decorations similar, whilst ensuring the room still fells like a luxurious suite. You wonder beforehand if the suite will have a strange atmosphere, and although there is a definite feeling in the room, it is one of calmness and contentment. Now a couple of months after our stay, it is still something I think about on a daily basis with real fondness. Having stayed at loads of great hotels and been treated exceptionally well in many, especially Fairmont Hotels, it is amazing that our stay at the Queen Elizabeth manages to surpass everything else. I'm not saying the suite is just another tacky romantic getaway, somehow it manages to be something much more profound. Considering neither myself nor my husband were born in 1969, you may think it strange we should think the role of the suite has any relevance whatsoever. However having grown up as children of the eighties, and suffering on a daily basis from the misplaced media adulation of celebrity nobodies, it is humbling to cast a thought to John Lennon and a time when celebrities tried to use their fame to make an important st
and. I also know that the wh ole experience is one that will change us forever - not least because we now expect our first baby - no doubt joining a long list of John Lennon Suite babies!!
The Hotel Amigo is the first Rocco Forte Hotel outside of the UK that we have stayed at, having enjoyed immensely the hotels belonging to the small chain in Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh. Our confidence in the brand was such that when we had some frequent flyer miles to use, the fact that there was a Rocco Forte Hotel in Brussels, made this our destination of choice. I booked originally through the Hotel website at a rate of 225 euro a night for a Deluxe Room. Prior to our stay my husband became eligible to join the Leading Hotels of the World Leaders Club, and to take advantage of their benefits, we changed our booking and booked through the LHW website. Luckily the price was still 225 euro. Before our stay I e-mailed the hotel to confirm our Leaders Club membership had been noted, to make enquiries about food served in their bar and also to confirm our dinner reservation on one night of our stay. We had filled out the online restaurant reservation form, but as happened at the St David's Hotel in Cardiff we didn't receive any confirmation, so felt compelled to e-mail the hotel anyway for confirmation. The e-mail responses were helpful and swift ? possibly more efficient than the responses from their UK hotels. The Amigo is housed on a site where a prison once stood, although it has been a luxury hotel for many years, even prior to the purchase by Rocco Forte Hotels. It is steps away from the Grand Place, and from the Gare Centrale (which has efficient links to the airport) it is about a 10 minute walk (possibly 5 minutes if you don't get lost amongst the narrow streets!). The red brick façade of the hotel, in a Spanish Renaissance style, blends in very well with its surroundings, and the overall image is very understated. The hotel has a steep dark slate roof with gabled windows, and was actually smaller than I expected ? I am still adjusting to the fact that not all landmark hotels are huge imposing buildings! Th
e entrance to the hotel is on one corner, through a small glass porchway, past the uniformed and not particularly welcoming doormen. The stone floor of the compact lobby is strikingly different and the small dark wooden reception desk and plain cream walls, together with red velvet chairs dotted around to relax in, and give the hotel an intimate and clubby feel. Both the bar and restaurant lead off the lobby, so this area is the main focus of the hotel. It was only 10am but we checked in anyway. On our booking we had requested a room on the 6th Floor which had balconies, although as a Leaders Club member we were entitled to a room upgrade anyway. When we checked in we were told we had been given a room on the 6th floor. I wondered whether if we hadn't made the specific request we would have been given a room in a higher category or whether the rooms with balconies were considered an upgrade anyway. Although Rocco Forte Hotel staff are always extremely professional and never over familiar (that is one of the attractions) I think the Amigo staff were slightly less helpful and somewhat brusque, or maybe that was just the language barrier. Either way, no mention was made of us being Leaders Club members, or of our dinner reservation. We were shown up to the room by the bellman. The public areas and corridors were all very new looking, but still managed to be inkeeping with the style of a landmark hotel. The walls were all in a crisp cream colour and the floors were covered in a subtle striped green carpet. Due to the style of building the corridors weren?t particularly wide but at the end of most of the corridors were windows looking out over the rooftops giving the space a light and airy feeling. Our room was on the Rue Amigo side of the hotel directly behind the Hotel de Ville. You entered into the main bedroom space, which on first impressions was of fairly average size ? although actually just the bedroom space was probably com
parable to the space in other European Hotels including the bathroom. It did not feel cramped but is was more in the style of European hotels than Rocco Forte's modern hotels where space is generous. The main bedroom space had a very light green/beige carpet and light cream walls, with bed covered in a cream linen bedcover and beige/green throw and with a beige woven fabric covered headboard. The medium brown leather topped desk and green covered chair were positioned in the corner of the room nearest the window. The windows were obscured by linen nets, and also had rich forest green drapes with patterned edging. The TV was contained within the almost obligatory wooden TV unit at the bottom of the bed, which this time was in a stylish mahogany and beech veneer. The unit also contained drawers and the minibar. The walls were punctuated by Tin Tin prints which really added a lovely quirky touch. Rocco Forte Hotels again managed to combine stylish furnishings with modern touches that result in an impressive, comfortable and relaxing space. Closet space was ample with two large fitted wardrobes, complete with trouser press and safe enclosed. In keeping with most European hotels, there was not an iron and board in the room or tea/coffee making facilities. We had wondered if the rooms would have CD players, an item that seems to be creeping into a lot of 5 star hotels, and one which personally I always appreciate. Unforunately at the Amigo, there was no CD player. The room had two telephones, good subtle lighting and a normal hotel style TV with a variety of channels, including the BBC. A small table and armchair was positioned in front of the French doors which led to a small balcony. Although small the balcony really did add to the appeal of the room, as the view was exactly what you expect of Brussels. The spire of the Hotel de Ville was so close you felt you could practically touch it, and either side the view was extensive
over the rooftops of the city. What the room may have lacked in space was more than compensated for in the bathroom. This room was approximately 16 feet long and 6½ feet wide, with cream tiling and a large vanity unit along one side with green marble top and modern style taps. Above the vanity unit was a large cream framed mirror. Sound from the TV was piped into the bathroom and there was also a very useful wall mounted magnifying shaving mirror plus bathroom scales and telephone. The bathroom had the addition of a bidet, but did not have a separate shower. However the large bath had two shower heads and was of good quality, so we didn?t mind too much. The floor had cream floor tiles accentuated by a central strip of green marble floor tiles with co-ordinating mosaic tiling. The bathroom also had a balcony of the same size as that leading off the bedroom, and this was a really nice touch, as it was good to get some natural light into the bathroom, and let the sunshine in too, with no fear of being overlooked. If you like being childish it is fun to stand on one balcony while your partner stands on the other, and wave at each other ? little things please us! In short as usual with Rocco Forte, the bathroom was fantastic. Looking at the floor plan on the back of the door, (which is fast becoming a habit of mine, to check what the size of the other rooms are!) I noticed that the majority of the rooms were of a similar size to ours, and that ours benefited from two balconies which most of the others did not, so I felt pretty reassured that the hotel had been quite kind to us. On our first evening, before dining we visited the bar for a cocktail. There was a fairly good selection of classic cocktails, although no Cosmopolitan I am afraid to say. I decided to order a Tom Collins, my husband as usual opting for a martini. Both were very good, fairly generous measures and reasonably priced (for Europe) at 12 euros each. That e
vening we also dined in La Verlaine, the hotel's restaurant. On entering the restaurant we were greeted very warmly and shown to our seats on one of the large curved banquettes by the window. The style of the restaurant is very stylish and modern, with neutral tones and light green leather banquettes all along the edges of the room. The walls were decorated with Tin Tin inspired prints, and the whole atmosphere was one of relaxed elegance. We were given menus in English ? quite a relief, and for the first time ever while dining out I was surprised that no prices were alongside the items. It took me a while to realise that only my husband's menu had prices ? it was quite an amusing old fashioned idea! For starter I ordered the Asparagus, Flemish style, while my husband chose the Bouillabaise. For main course we ordered the whole lobster. The white asparagus I had for starter was the most disappointing part of the meal, as it was severely overcooked, so much so that to try and cut it turned it into a stringy mush. The colours of the dish were also a little bland looking. My husband said his Bouillabaise was actually extremely good. From my point of view the restaurant redeemed itself with the main course however, which was lovely. The lobster was tender and flavoursome, and really hit the spot. For dessert I had enjoyed my main course so much, that I felt prepared for a rich scrumptious dessert. I chose the chocolate soufflé, which was the highlight of the meal. So rich and yummy without being sickly. My husband ordered a lemon pudding which he also enjoyed. The following evening we decided to eat in the bar. Again we had a cocktail, but this time I chose the hotel's signature cocktail, which had won an award. It contained Grand Marnier, apricot syrup I think and other ingredients that because the cocktail was so good, I cannot recall. My husband commented it was rather sickly, but in my opinion it was just the right si
de of being sickly, as the flavours mingled really well. We had decided to sit in an alcove at the far end of the bar, but were soon 'ordered ' to leave when we ordered our food, by the rather abrupt barman. Why is it in hotels if you find any member of staff with an attitude it is in the bar? For the rest of the evening we sampled some Belgian beer, steering clear of the rather acquired taste Blond beers, and opting for the Chimay Bleu and Leffe Brune. Both were good, and the Chimay rather too strong for me (as my head in the morning testified). For our meals we ordered a Croque Monsieur (for me) and a Entrecote Steak (for Monsieur!). The Croque Monsieur far exceeded my expectations ? if only bar food was always this scrummy. We decided to order a dessert, and a more friendly barman also brought us the restaurant menu which he said we could order from. My husband decided to sample the Chocolate Souffle this time, myself going for chocolate overload with the Chocolate Mousse. Both, as you might expect in Belgium, were lovely. The barman was gradually coming to life as the evening went on (and our bill increased) and he became positively enthusiastic when we were just observing the range of spirits on offer. He sprinted across to our table, only for his face to drop when we asked for the bill! Although I enjoyed our meal, if I had my time again I wouldn?t subject myself to the rather off-hand bar service and instead I would dine out at one of the many restaurants near Grand Place. After our bar meal we went out for a walk, and the atmosphere down the narrow alleyways where the restaurants have outdoor eating areas was really buzzing, and I did feel that I may have missed out on something by staying in the hotel bar that evening. As is usual with Rocco Forte Hotels, our comments on the guest questionnaire were responded to; this time both by e-mail and letter. This is always a reassuring touch, and something you know wouldn't happen
at an equivalent Marriott (if there is such a thing!). I would say that of all the four Rocco Forte Hotels we have stayed at, the Amigo was my least favourite, mainly due to the customer service being slightly inferior. However on most other factors I rate the hotel very highly; the food was extremely good, the room charming, and the convenience to what Brussels has to offer is pretty unbeatable. The hotel also has a lovely atmosphere. Although the hotel room rate wasn?t inexpensive, it was fairly competitive, and the cost was made worse by the poor exchange rate. Actually I realised that the price wasn?t too bad when I stayed two weeks later at the Westin in Dublin paying 300 euros for what was a far inferior product. Our rate included breakfast, and this meal was probably the most disappointing aspect of the hotel. In the restaurant a small table was set out with a rather poor selection of pastries, and another display had cereals and a less than impressive choice of continental items. On both occasions when we went for breakfast we weren't told what breakfast was included. The first morning I just had a couple of items from the pastry selection and my husband had a bowl of cornflakes. The following day we both had some cereal. When we checked out we noticed that there was a 10 euro supplement added to our bill, and on enquiring what this was we were told it was the extra charge for the continental buffet on the first morning. We were shocked at this, not only because it seemed rather underhand to charge extra for such basic items as cornflakes, but also because on no occasion had we been told what we were entitled to. Our reservation stated that continental breakfast was included, and you wouldn't really assume this just meant the meagre choice of croissants etc. As it turned out we were being charged 10 euro for a bowl of cornflakes! The extra charges for the breakfast on the day we left hadn't been posted to
our account but I am sure if we hadn't complained we would have had a 20 euro supplement for our two continental buffets that day. After a little debate the hotel agreed to refund the 10 euro, but I was disappointed that we had this problem. Usually the fantastic thing about Rocco Forte Hotels is that you can rely on everything being in order when you check out. If I was ever in Brussels I would definitely stay at the Amigo, as I am sure that regardless of the few problems we encountered, no other Brussels hotel would come close to this standard in terms of atmosphere and the feeling of luxury.
We decided to stay at the Sheraton, when we needed a hotel to stay at after a trip to Dubai. It is almost always less expensive to stay at a 4 star hotel before or after your trip than park your car in any of the car parks. Plus you get an extra night in hopefully a good hotel. We hoped that as it was January we may be able to get a good deal, but the prices were practically the same as when we travel in the summer. We paid £85 for room only at the hotel, including up to 15 days car parking. This was booked through ABC Holiday Extras. I did e-mail the hotel beforehand to ask what price they could offer us for a night including parking, but they said they could not match the price and advised us to book with ABC. I would have thought it would be worthwhile for them to deal directly with the customer! The price was fairly representative of the Heathrow hotels. We had stayed already at the Marriott, Renaissance, Le Meridien, Radisson and Hilton, but we were still curious what the Sheraton would be like, never having stayed at any of the hotels in the chain before. We dropped off our car prior to our trip, and we were not delayed very long while we advised the receptionist that we had parked our car and would be staying a week later. Sometimes this causes confusion, and I can't say I was totally convinced that they realised exactly what was going on! The outside of the hotel, in common with the majority of the Heathrow hotels, looks pretty bleak, perhaps even bleaker than most. The whole style seems to reflect the era when they were built, and as a result everything looks very very dated and ugly. The low building with pink stone boxy façade, small windows and with bold blue signs is frankly architecturally awful! Maybe it's just me, but I find the name somewhat misleading - 'Skyline'. If I hadn't seen pictures of the hotel beforehand I may have expected a hotel with lots of floors, that you may get a good
view from! We went into the hotel to check in, where we found the check in pretty confused. First of all our booking could not be found, then a booking with the incorrect address was found, and the check in clerk seemed pretty unconcerned that this wasn't actually our booking. After a while we were given our room key and made our way a few steps to the lift. The main lobby is quite large, with shiny polished floor, and a large seating area just inside the business-like revolving doors. First impressions aren't that bad, but you definitely don't get the impression this is a great hotel. The décor looks a little dated. However the first main fear that the hotel may be in need of a little TLC, came when we entered the (very small) lift. This was extremely old fashioned, very creaky and rather grotty. On leaving the lift, the corridors similarly did not have a particularly new feel to them, and were rather dated too, decorated in a green colour. Our room was of average UK hotel size, a big culture shock after Dubai, and was comfortable but not in any way luxurious or impressive. The inoffensive geometric beige carpet and dappled light green toned wallpaper left us underwhelmed. The bed covered in a green gingham cover with mismatched shiny green valance followed the green theme, finished off by stripy green curtains with unecessary box valance. The room had a beech wood TV unit and desk and chair, along with a a sofa in a navy patterned fabric with contrasting red cushions. There was also a gold rimmed metal coffee table with glass top, adding to the already contrasting style of the room. Everything was OK ? no more no less; slightly better than a Travelodge. The bathroom was of average size, with marble topped vanity surface. The walls were covered in a candy striped wallpaper, and I was happy that the bath had a hand held shower, which is always a welcome addition, if like me, you like being able to wash
your hair without having a shower too! The only view we had was an internal one, and I wished I'd requested a runway facing room, but I hadn't realised that there were some rooms on the front until after I had checked in. The view was of the Sky Bar which is housed in the inner courtyard, and is also the location of the swimming pool. The bar is stated as being a trendy place for locals to visit, but I am guessing this was only the case about 20 years ago, when the faux tropical bar and pool may have been a little appealing. The view was not as bad as some you may get, and we have had, overlooking dustbins etc, but was actually quite depressing in its own retro kind of way. Although we had an inward facing room, we still noticed that the hotel wasn?t particularly well soundproofed, and the light that shone from a large gap under the door was also quite distracting when you were trying to sleep. Whenever I woke up I thought I had left a light on. The room had the benefits of the usual in room amenities, although there was no iron and board. The hotel has a restaurant, Sage, and an adjoining bar, as well as the aforementioned Sky Bar. It also has an American themed Sports Bar. As is always the case when we return from our travels, we did not fancy a formal restaurant meal, and hoped to grab a snack in the restaurant bar. We first sampled the cocktails in the Sky Bar, which had a 2 for the price of 1 offer on at the time. The cocktail menu was a little disappointing, as it seemed to be sponsored by Smirnoff and so had a limited appeal, and none of the hotel signature cocktails that usually make a cocktail menu. The cosmopolitan I had was passable, but I certainly wasn't tempted to have another! We then attempted to have a snack in the bar, but were told that they did not serve food, and were directed to the American bar. You can imagine what this is like ? American road signs and memorabilia on the walls. The obl
igatory red checked tablecloths that every American theme bar in this country must have (and that I have not once witnessed actually in the US!). The menu seemed fairly appealing, if relatively expensive, and I decided to order the chicken satay (which was actually a starter) and a side order of fries. My husband ordered a pizza. The service was fairly good, but the food was not. The chicken satay looked most unappealing and was caked in a dusty coating. It was obvious that the dry synthetic spices had been used instead of a marinade, and the result was quite revolting. The size of the dish was enormous, and would have been far too huge for a starter. The restaurant was also full of families with children and then so all in all the end result was far from the relaxing end to a holiday that we try to achieve. We noticed that the hotel was deadly quiet while we were there, and I am pretty sure that most of the rooms must have been unoccupied. Why in these circumstances it didn't occur to the hotel to allocate us one of the slightly better rooms baffles me. It always seems to e the case that in this class of hotel upgrades are like gold dust and they seem to think giving you something for nothing is just not done. A better hotel would (and does) realise that treating a customer well will probably encourage them to return. We really did feel that the hotel couldn't care less. I definitely would not return to this hotel. It falls into the poor category of Heathrow Hotels. The cost is usually £10 to £15 more than staying in the nearby Holiday Inn Ariel, and although we have never stayed there, we enjoyed a really nice bar meal there once. The service was not particularly good at the Sheraton, and I would be put off staying at any of their other hotels. I thought the whole hotel needed a big refurbishment programme and the dining establishments need bringing up to date. Compared to the Marriott where the choice of restaurants is r
eally good, and you feel that it is at least trying to be a luxury hotel, the Sheraton is a big disappointment. For the same price or probably less I would stay at any of Le Meridien, Renaissance of the Marriott Bath Road. In fact when we had another overnight stop at the airport this June, it was the Marriott that I was happy to return to.
We had initially sought out Bank Restaurant a couple of years ago, after it was recommended in one of Rick Stein's books. At the time there was one branch in London, on Aldwych (there is now one in Westminster too plus a branch in Birmingham). It occupies a spot near the corner of Kingsway, and I remember being struck by the extremely casual appearance of the brightly coloured formica topped tables. We didn't manage a visit on that occasion but during a recent trip, despite the informal appearance, we decided to visit. We had been spurred on to visit after having read the menu that appeared very appealing on their really helpful website (www.bankrestaurant.co.uk). We had been more than impressed by Fish!, another restaurant venture of one of the proprietors, Tony Allen, and this spurred us on to visit his slightly more upmarket restaurant. We entered through the business like revolving door, and were greeted by the ultra efficient Maitre D' who took our coats, while we went into the bar. The front area (which I only realised on this occasion was just a bar and constituted a small part of the restaurant) is in full view of passers by, and had a large cocktail bar with seating around as well as tables and chairs. We took a seat and began the mammoth task of choosing from the lengthy cocktail menu. I never complain about a long cocktail menu though. It was a great selection, the majority being classic cocktails, many martini versions, a handful of Bank signature cocktails and none of the naff holiday type cocktails such as Harvey Wallbanger and Tequila Sunrises! My husband chose a classic vodka martini and I picked the Bank cocktail, a champagne cocktail with grenadine. These were painstakingly prepared, were generous measures and were fantastic. I find cocktails fall into 3 categories - disappointing, good and brilliant. These were the latter. We really savoured our cocktails before we went to be shown to our table. The actual restaurant at the rear of the building, was extremely large and was more elegant than the casual bar implied. The large area had tables spaced well apart and although it was bright and modern, it still managed to have a fairly intimate atmosphere, and you weren't particularly aware of the other diners around you. The décor is set off by lots of sparkling glass and the whole space matches perfectly the modern touch of the dishes on the menu - contemporary without the obsession with being trendy. The menu is what I would call a proper restaurant menu, consisting of classic dishes with a modern touch. The menu was large and consisted of probably 15 starters and around 20 main courses. For starter, there were classics such as Smoked Salmon, Vegetarian options of risotto, tarts, salads and pasta, and a big emphasis on fish and seafood. For main courses, again there was the option of pasta, a lot of fish dishes, and a good variety of meat and poultry dishes, all with modern influences and interesting accompaniments. The Waiter who served us was extremely professional, friendly enough with being overbearing. Similarly the pace of service was well judged and suited us. We ordered a bottle of water and were left for just the right amount of time before our orders were taken. We also ordered a bottle of Mission Hill Pinot Blanc from the interesting wine list. This contained a number of very reasonably priced wines, our choice costing around £20. The wine list was one of the reasons that we were spurred on to visit Bank. Being Canadian Wine fans, it was the first wine list we noticed in the UK that offered any. Since then we have noticed two more restaurants (Hadrians in the Balmoral Hotel and Livebait in New Fetter Lane in London, who also have the Mission Hill) so obviously some wine merchant is pushing the stuff - and at last the drought is over!!. Ours starters arrived fairly swiftly. I had I decided upon the Beef Tom
ato and Buffalo Mozzarella Salad with Aged Balsamic, which is a frequent choice of mine. I think this is the best I have had so far, the mozzarella being moist and flavoursome, and the other ingredients tasty. Unlike is often the case, the restaurant hadn't been tempted to add superfluous additions like pesto, too much olive oil, or drown the dish in balsamic vinegar. Everything was done with a very careful measured approach, resulting in a surprisingly good simple dish. My husband had ordered the Red Onion and Goats Cheese Tart Tatin, which wasn't as huge or stodgy as it might have been. For main course, I picked the Roast Corn Fed Chicken, with Morel Mousse and Asparagus and Truffle Linguine. The flavours of this dish were perfect. The chicken cooked exactly right, tender and flavoursome. The mousse added more juiciness to the dish and the linguine which happily was not overpowered by the asparagus and truffle, was again cooked perfectly. The dish was just the right size, not being too much of a plateful, but not requiring any side orders in addition. The quality of the chicken combined with the careful pairings of flavours resulted in a really great restaurant dish. This sort of dish I think could transcend all types of restaurant, from fine dining to a casual bistro, and similarly would be an equally suitable choice for either a summer or winter dish. Great! My husband's main course, Rump of Lamb, Roast Provencale Vegetables with Black Olive and Thyme Jus, was again perfectly cooked, and a good combination of flavours and textures. All the dishes were also well presented. It appeared that the extremely interesting and appealing menu in this instance had been a sign of good things to come, as opposed to the usual case of an appetising menu resulting in an anti-climax when the food arrives! We decided to finish the wine, before we made a decision on the dessert menu. Unlike many other restaurants, we weren't constan
tly bothered until we made a decision, and it was nice to relax in what are very nice surroundings. After a while, we ordered desserts, Pistachio Ice Cream for me and Sticky Toffee Pudding for my husband. The restaurant also offers Mission Hill Riesling Ice Wine, a first as far as I know. We had been looking forward to this all night, having withdrawal symptoms since we finished the last of the bottle we brought home from Canada last time! The ice cream was really tasty, and not at all like some pistachio ice creams I have had that have nearly been luminous in colour. The flavours were subtle, and just the right refreshing end to the really good meal I had just had. My husband said his toffee pudding was really good, and not at all sickly, that is almost always the case. I think this is the key to Bank. The dishes have potential to be too much, too stodgy, too rich, too colourful .... but in the end the execution is so precise and careful, what you end up with as near to perfection as you could find. Considering Bank is not fine dining, and makes no great promises, it is one of the few meals I have had that all three courses have been equally enjoyable, and that after the evening, there would not be one thing I would choose differently. Add to that the bold choice of wines, and hurrah, success! The total cost of the meal, including cocktails, wine, water, two glasses of ice wine and 3 courses was just under £120 including service. I think this compares really favourably to other similar restaurants, and I would have no hesitation going back whenever I am in London.
This hotel opened a couple of years ago, to great interest. The Pearl Assurance building on High Holborn had been converted to a hotel, and The Times described the result as one of the most exciting hotels in the world. Such a bold claim couldn't help but cause some curiosity and we decided if we fancied staying in a 5 star hotel in London we would try it. I made a booking through the Marriott website paying £158 per night for a weekend Leisure break in a classic room including breakfast. Shortly before our stay we booked a slightly cheaper special rate, which was £150 per night. We noticed that other London Hotels, such as Grosvenor House, The Savoy, The Waldorf and Claridges were offering amazing rates this weekend, so we were a little surprised that the Renaissance's last minute offers were practically non-existent. We had been in contact with the hotel prior to our stay, as we had some Whitbread Leisure Vouchers that we would have liked to use to pay for our room. This caused some confusion, and we got various misinformed replies before we got clarification from Leisure Vouchers themselves that we could use them. We found e-mailing the hotel rather hit and miss. Indeed Marriott do not even publicise the e-mail addresses of their hotels on their website. The hotel is situated a very short walk away from Holborn tube station, and as this is only two stops from Kings Cross on the Piccadilly Line it is probably one of the most convenient 5 star hotels to get to. Approaching it along High Holborn you can hardly miss it, as the huge light building with large clock tower and extravagant ornamental detailing is stunning. You enter the hotel through the central arch into a courtyard, and through the rather understated main entrance on your right. The lobby is large with concierge and bell desks on either side and the reception desks straight ahead. While we were there the lobby was rarely busy and so you certainly made an e
ntrance! We wanted to leave our bags, but were told that because they had been so quiet the night before our room would be ready (was there a hint of desperation in her voice I wonder?). So used to other great hotels offering upgrades without any subterfuge on our part, it didn't occur to us to ask for an upgraded room if they were so quiet. We were checked in quickly, with efficiency, if not great enthusiasm. We then found our room on the 5th floor. The corridors are fairly wide and look very very new - the décor being stylish and understated, without the particular luxurious feel of long standing landmark hotels. The hotel is actually quite strange as it has all the hallmarks of a great landmark hotel ? the opulence, the sweeping staircases, the marble, but somehow it all looks a little too new. Maybe it would have helped if there were more people around too, to give the building a bit of life. Our room was a large square space, with a view overlooking the central courtyard. Outside our room was a corridor built in a modern glass addition to the building with a great view looking towards the Thames and the Millennium Wheel. What a pity these rooms look inwards! Although we were struck initially that the room was a little smaller than we expected, looking at the plan on the back of the door confirmed that in fact there were plenty of rooms smaller. We perhaps were misled by reading that the hotel rooms were generously sized, and did not take into account the relative compactness of European hotel rooms, especially compared to North American ones. The bedroom was very comfortable and stylish, but perhaps had more of a corporate image rather than being necessarily luxurious. The room had the Marriott brand written all over it, and perhaps if the designers had been a little bolder, the overall effect would have been more distinctive. The carpet was a dark green colour with a cream floral pattern, (perhaps a little too old
fashioned) and the bed covered in a rather mismatched rich russet shiny bed cover. The furniture consisting of headboard, bedside drawers, dressing table and TV/minibar unit were in a medium oak colour. The cream walls and ceiling, curtains in a russet striped fabric, rich coloured scatter cushions, modern art on the walls and the chair near the window covered in a claret colour fabric were the slightly more contemporary elements of the room. The combination of extremely conservative carpet, contemporary touches and the overall corporate image did not particularly contribute to a streamlined end result. The small-ish window, with double-glazing inside the original frame looked out over the inner courtyard. The internal view is usually a bit of a disappointment, but here the architecture is so very striking that we didn?t mind too much. In fact I would prefer to have this view than be on either side of the hotel where I am guessing the view is mainly of adjacent buildings. The perfect option would be to have a room on the front, but I am not sure if these are just the upgraded categories. The amenities in the room were as you would expect from a hotel at the top end of the Marriott chain. The room had three telephones (one in the bathroom), iron and board, umbrella, bathrobes, standard hotel hairdryer and minibar (which thankfully wasn?t the silly automatic Marriott kind). The TV was the normal interactive kind, with a cordless keyboard so you could surf the net, but unfortunately here the charge was £17, so was a bit steep to consider. The bathroom was of average size, with black marble vanity tops and light marble tiles accentuated by a black marble line round the room. The bathroom did not particularly impress, like the Rocco Forte bathrooms always do, but it was pleasant and practical. The layout was standard, no double sink, bidet or separate shower. As is often the case, the sound control for listening to the TV in the b
athroom was not working. I have lost count of the number of hotels where this has stopped working, and it always seems to be one of those things that is just left, perhaps because guests (ourselves included) never think it is important enough to complain about! Now for the most annoying thing about the stay ? the lack of hot water. I noticed whilst washing my hair in the shower that the dial had to be turned to high to get anywhere near the temperature required. However it was nowhere near hot enough for an enjoyable bath. I consoled myself that the next night it may be different, but I am sorry to say exactly the same thing happened. I always think one of the pleasures of hotel stays is the long luxurious hot bath, and I was disappointed that I had not been able to enjoy this. To be honest you can?t even make any excuses, as if the hotel can?t provide enough hot water for the quantity of guests that weekend there is not much hope for when the hotel is packed. The main feature of the hotel in the striking staircase that rises seven floors up. The staircase is actually fairly tucked away, and you tend to expect it to be in a prominent position from the lobby. You actually approach it from near the restaurant. It is a magnificent feature of the hotel, and as the hotel was so quiet, we flounced down the stairs each evening totally alone! You could almost imagine you had the whole place to yourself. Actually in the hotel you can get quite disorientated, especially trying to find your way to the restaurant through door after door, up and down staircases. Again if more people had been milling around, I am sure finding your way would be somewhat easier. The first evening we planned to have a cocktail in the Chancery Court Bar, which is at the front of the hotel. We did not realise (as we had not been told) until we got into the room that the bar was closed for refurbishment. As a result we decided to go the QC Restaurant bar, but QC Restau
rant was also closed that Good Friday evening. We had no choice but to go into the lounge where no cocktail menu existed. We were able to order a couple of cocktails however, which were very pleasant if not incredible. We noticed that a few tables had been decked out to form an impromptu dining area, and we commented that we would have been mighty annoyed if we had booked a dinner, bed and breakfast break which should have been served in the extremely attractive and critically acclaimed QC Restaurant. This seems to be an extremely annoying habit of the Marriott group ? the closure of their restaurants on certain days of the week! You very often are left feeling that you have only experienced a watered down version of the hotel due to the facilities that form it being closed. The Lounge, QC Restaurant where we had breakfast, and the Chancery Court Bar (what we could see of it) all are extremely attractive huge spaces, with high ceilings and opulent décor. Breakfast is a buffet affair, both for cooked and continental. The Marriott brand always tends to do this meal well, and the selection of continental items is extensive. We found the service rather disappointing at breakfast, as we had to ask for toast on the first day, and were brought only white when we had asked for a mixture of brown and white. On the second day we again were not asked if we would like toast, and the table service was practically non-existent. While we were at the hotel we wondered if it would have been better to have stayed at the Grosvenor instead. Maybe even if the Grosvenor is getting a little tired and in need of refurbishment, it would have had more atmosphere than the painfully quiet Chancery Court. The hotel is fairly competitively priced compared to other 5 star hotels. However, for less money I could also stay at the Chamberlain near Tower Bridge, where I stayed last year, that although it is only a 4 star hotel, has a lot of little in room touches that t
he Chancery Court does not (plasma screen in the bathroom, separate shower etc). Definitely if I was going to London in the warmer months, I would pay less and go for the best room at the Chamberlain (with a terrace) rather than the basic room at the Chancery Court. The location of the hotel is so convenient, for Kings Cross, restaurants in Covent Garden area (and Bank on Aldwych in particular). It is very simple to get to most places on a direct tube line, and this is a big benefit. I would like to return to sample the proper cocktail bar and QC Restaurant that has had good reviews. Perhaps though next time I would pay a little extra for one of the upgraded rooms, and if the price was right, a room on the private club floor. I also wish that the hotel was not run by a chain, as the corporate touches were perhaps not inkeeping with the style of the hotel. I have noticed that the hotel doesn't seem to be attracting as many guests as you might expect, and I wonder whether if it wasn't afflicted by the Renaissance brand the type of guests who stay at other more traditional 5 star hotels may be tempted to try it. Because you don't necessarily associate Renaissance with the luxury end of the market, the more pretentious guest may be put off. It is a fact that the hotel does seem to lack atmosphere, which is strange considering the huge amount of aesthetic character it has. I am not sure if more guests, giving the hotel some life, were the missing element, or if two years since opening the hotel is still far too new and sparkling to have that unmistakable landmark hotel feeling. Either way I still feel curious enough about the hotel to return to give it a second chance.
When we needed somewhere to stay after a trip to Seattle and Western Canada, we hunted around for a parking inclusive package at one of the Heathrow airport hotels. We had already tried the Hilton and the Radisson Edwardian, the latter being absolutely awful despite its 5 star rating. We had also enjoyed a stay at Le Meridien, but for 3 weeks car parking the Renaissance offered the best deal, and we were happy to try something different. From the outside, the Renaissance looks pretty unremarkable. It is a rather ugly looking large long four storey concrete block with loads of uniform windows. Once inside, some of the doubts you may have had, judging on outside appearances, disappear. The lobby is large and modern, with places to sit, and shops tucked away at one end. It isn't particularly luxurious, but like many of this class of hotel, is smart and uniformly decorated. The staff at reception were courteous and efficient. We had dropped our car off at the hotel three weeks before, and usually this causes much confusion at Heathrow hotels. We were pleased that on this occasion it had been very simple and our departure to the airport was not delayed. We paid £120 for our room, which included car parking for the length of our holiday, even more of a bargain if you were away for a really long time. This was very impressive as usually Heathrow hotels only include 15 days parking and then you pay between £5 and £10 per extra day. For a stay at the Hilton you would pay £225, so we were more than pleased with the value. After our break, having been spoilt by North American standards of service, we were happy to find the check in was similarly efficient on our return. I had requested a room overlooking the runway, and forever doubtful as to whether requests have been noted, I confirmed this on checking in. The request had been noted and the check in clerk showed me the position of our room on a large floor plan of the hotel - very efficient. O
ur room, which by the nature of the hotel, was on a low floor, was of average size. It was furnished with a table and armchair, a desk and chair and a TV unit all in a medium shade of wood. The bedspread was in a light floral print with the chairs in co-ordinating light green fabric and the curtains were in a light cream colour. It had all the amenities you would need like hairdryer, iron, minibar, fairly good lighting etc. The room was very typical of the Marriott breed of North American chain hotel. It didn't strike you that it particularly needed updating, although it may have been a little old fashioned in places. There was a well publicised refurbishment program under way, and I am sure this will improve the rooms before they really need it. The reason a lot of people stay at the Renaissance is because it is the only hotel really close to the runways at Heathrow. We requested a runway facing room, and this had large windows overlooking the airport a short distance away from one of the two runways. This is a plane spotters dream, and for anyone even vaguely interested in civil aircraft, it is really interesting. Heathrow being such a busy airport with aircraft always landing or taking off, it certainly beats watching TV! The rooms are triple glazed, but you are aware of the rumbling of the aircraft, but I personally did not find this distracting and I slept soundly even during the day after our flight. The hotel has a few shops selling newspapers etc and also tourist items. Off the lobby is the Brasserie restaurant, and also a fairly small bar. We decided to have a light meal in the bar, and the service was excellent. It was quite a refreshing change to have such attentive and professional bar service in an UK hotel. Unlike other UK hotels owned by North American chains where you are never sure if you are expected to order at the bar (and the staff often seem purposely hesitant and let you get up and order!), we were attended to very so
on after being seated and we continued to get the attention we needed when we wanted to order food and/or more drinks. We only really wanted a light snack, so ordered from the bar menu a sandwich and a pizza. The portions were generous and could be described as good bar fare. Breakfast which unusually was included in the package was served in the main restaurant, and offered a good choice of continental and cooked breakfast items. Marriott and Renaissance always seem to do breakfast very well, combining the usual English items with the added benefit of American type things like Muffins etc - making for a really good choice. When we checked out the bill was correct, with the rate of £120 being honoured (we have found on a few occasions that when checking out, hotels deny all knowledge of the rate you have booked, meaning a rather unpleasant and unwelcome confrontation after what has always been a fantastic foreign holiday). We always stay overnight on our return to Heathrow, after an overnight flight, and seem to be working our way through all the 4 and 5 star Heathrow Hotels. Most are at best, average, with the sole 5 star being especially poor. The Renaissance, which does not seem to promise much, actually delivers everything you would require, without the usual confusion, apathy and poor service we have experienced at other Heathrow Hotels. Oh yes, and for plane spotting, it's great to be able to do this from the comfort of your warm and cosy room
Ever since the Jumeirah Beach Hotel opened we had intended to stay there when we eventually visited Dubai, but ironically it wasn't until another hotel, the Fairmont, opened in Dubai, that we made our reservation. What could be more perfect that a trip combining the Fairmont brand, always a fantastic choice and in our opinion the best hotel chain in the world and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, reputedly the 'best hotel in the world'. We booked our room for a three night staying January this year, through Airline Network in the UK, paying £200 for the room per night. This was for a Deluxe Balcony Room including breakfast, and was one category up from the standard deluxe room, the balcony being the only difference. Before our stay we had been in contact with the hotel on a couple of occasions, and had found their replies helpful if not always particularly speedy. The Jumeirah Beach Hotel that many people associate with Dubai is actually quite a distance from the city, being around 15 miles from the creek. Travelling along Sheikh Zayed road, you can see the adjacent Burj Al Arab always in the distance, and when you approach both of the hotels, you are struck how separate from everything else they are. Actually many of the other beach hotels are clustered together even further away from the city. The shape of the hotel, in the style of a breaking wave is architecturally striking and the Burj Al Arab behind only reinforces the pleasing effect. Having just checked out of the fantastic Fairmont in the city, when we arrived at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel by taxi, we were struck straight away by the difference in service. Contrary to what we had been used to for the days previously no one offered to open our car door, or help us with our luggage. We carried our own bags to reception, and although there was plenty of staff around, none of them seemed particularly interested; this came as somewhat of a culture shock. When we approache
d reception, our presence was not acknowledged by any of the three receptionists on duty, two of which were apparently intently dealing with other guests. We waited for many minutes without even being told we would be helped shortly. We stood around, both of us realising what the other was thinking - how we had suddenly come down to earth with a bump! Eventually a receptionist was free, and he proceeded to check us in. We were asked for our passports, which caused some inconvenience as they were at the bottom of our suitcases. I asked if we could bring them down after we had unpacked, but he abruptly answered that 'no they had to be faxed to immigration straight away'. This annoyed us somewhat as we had already gone through this at the Fairmont (although much better handled) and so could not see the point of faxing the documents again. For a while he could not find our booking, and when he did, no mention was made of our request for a room on a high floor. Although the rooms with balconies only go up to about half way up the building, we still hoped we would have one of the higher rooms. We were handed a pocket-sized directory of the hotel, which only seemed to consist of details of all the restaurants. We were not given any useful information like when or where breakfast is served. The receptionist asked if we had a luggage docket, and we replied that no one had assisted us with our luggage, but he did not offer to arrange this for us. It was only when we were making our way across to the lifts that a member of the bell staff asked if we needed any help. The lobby is not particularly large but very high, with rows of balconies, outside of the lifts on each floor, rising to the ceiling. The floor has a large multicoloured carpet with a busy swirly pattern. The lower floors all have a light blue swirled carpet with sea blue walls, the higher floors changing over to red tones. All floors have heavy light woods doors and are
air conditioned to arctic effect! The guest rooms are all on the beach side of the hotel, so all have views of varying degrees. The corridors have large windows looking in the opposite direction, and the building is curved so that you aren?t struck by the size of the hotel, as you can only see a short distance along the corridor. Generally the public areas are light and airy, and on the ground floor towards the rear of the hotel, looking out over the beach and grounds, are various shops and the Colonnade restaurants as well as a lounge. You are struck quite quickly that everywhere is very busy, and there isn't a feeling of serenity, due to the hotel's size. Our room was large, with more swirly carpet, honey coloured cane type furniture and a large soft bed set at a slight angle (so that's where the Brigstowe in Bristol got the idea!). The bathroom is also large with a five-piece suite and marble effect vanity tops and a bath with shower head conveniently stowed away. There is also a really large separate shower behind the bath. There was practically all the toiletries you required, regularly replenished and a more than ample supply of mineral water. Unfortunately during our first evening during the turn down service all the towels we had used were taken away and not replaced, meaning we had one towel to last us until the following day. The hotel room contained a minibar, hairdryer, fax machine providing the entire bill viewing options etc and bathrobes and slippers (hurrah) were also supplied. Considering the Jumeirah Beach Hotel is a 5 star hotel, (sometimes laughably classed as a 6-star hotel) the furnishings in the room did not particularly reflect this. Although the furniture and soft furnishings are co-ordinated and of fairly good quality, overall the room is bright and welcoming, but by no means luxurious and certainly not elegant. Comparing photographs of our room at the Fairmont (disregarding the size of the suite) with our
room at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel some friends commented that the Jumeirah Beach Hotel room looked positively tacky. I am sure if you were a regular beach holiday hotel guest, you would be very pleased with the décor and style of the room and public areas, as I imagine the Jumeirah Beach Hotel compares favourably to any good beach resort hotel. However, as a regular City Hotel guest, I just found the style lacking in that understated elegance that is common in 5 star city hotels. The first afternoon we explored the hotel, but were rather shocked to find that we were not as free to roam around as we usually are in 5 star hotels. To get to the beach area, it is necessary to go down to basement level. You are not supposed to go between this level and the lobby by lift and you cannot use any of the main doors to get out to the grounds. All around the hotel, including in the rooms are notices advising guests to dress appropriately to the Muslim culture, and we found this slightly patronising that they thought the type of people staying here nedded to be told. During the first afternoon the realisation of many rules and regulations began to stifle me. The actual grounds are very attractive. There are quite a few pools to swim in or relax beside, including a children?s pool, a lap pool and two leisure pools. We made our way towards one pleasant looking beach area, only to find this was reserved for Beit Al Bahar/Burj Al Arab and Premium guests - yet more rules. There actually seemed to be ample space on the beaches though, especially in January, and the service is attentive and swift. Drinks and food will be brought to you and quickly charged to your room. During our stay I got used to the fact that we had to reach the beach by a certain route, and I warmed to the beach areas. In fact one lovely thing to do is to walk around the grounds in the evening when there are various sparkly lights everywhere and hardly anyone around. The one feeling we both ha
d regarding the hotel though, was that you could have been anywhere. It seems a shame that most people who stay here don't really get a feeling for Dubai, and you could easily be in the Caribbean or any other beach destination. There are many dining options at the Jumeirah Beach, and far too many to sample during the average stay. One cluster of restaurants (I use the term loosely) is called the Colonnade and consists of various different mini outlets which you help yourself to buffet style. We thought that this kind of low-end dining establishment brought the whole hotel down somewhat. Breakfast is served in the Colonnade, and the choice is huge, and the casual style is less of a problem at breakfast I guess. It is also possible to sit outside on the very full terrace. There are also 'traditional' English and German pubs, which perhaps are somewhat basic, but offer a casual option that serves its purpose well. We enjoyed a casual meal at the English pub, although we wished we had sat outside - the profusion of cigarette smokers can sometimes be a trial in Dubai. The pub serves a variety of beers, wine and the usual spirits, and a fairly short bar menu of such things like Fish and Chips, burgers etc. After a rather rich dining experience at Verre the night before, we were fairly happy to dine at the pub, although if I had known the Uptown Bar served food, this would have got our custom. The Uptown Bar is situated at the top of the hotel, and has a lovely roof top terrace for the warm weather. This is where you find the main cocktail choices - something else that is rather lacking at this hotel. The cocktails were priced at Dh30 each, and were good, if not fantastic. The view however is fantastic! There are a few outdoor dining venues as well as a fine dining restaurant, the Apartment, but the best meal we enjoyed here was at the Marina Seafood Market. This restaurant is at the end of the breakwater, and has a rooftop bar
ideal if it is warm enough. We found the s ervice somewhat disappointing, and certainly in general at the hotel the service cannot compare to alternative city hotels. The Marina restaurant has a largely seafood menu, with many of the items chosen from the fresh market selection. The fish and seafood items chosen from the market are charged at 'market price' with a small supplement for preparation and accompaniments. For starter my husband ordered the Bouillabaisse, which he said was very good, but I decided not to order a starter. We both ordered a lobster from the market, and there were various sizes to choose from. Indeed the whole market appeared to have a very good selection of seafood. We were a little dubious, not knowing the market, of the cost of the lobsters that we ordered, but the market price was about Dh150 per kilo, our reasonably sized Omani lobsters cost about £30 each. The lobsters were tender and flavoursome, and a contrast to Canadian or European lobsters, but they compared very favourably. Overall I enjoyed my stay at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. From all the hype, consistently being voted by the Daily Telegraph as the best hotel in the world and the continually exaggerated star status it is a sad fact that the reality cannot come up to expectations. We noticed a mission statement at the hotel, which stated that they aim to be the 'best resort hotel in the world'. Probably they have achieved this aim, although the real achievement would be to compare favourably with other landmark hotels worldwide - and then truly deserve the title of 'best hotel in the world'. In our experience resort hotels very rarely compare to their city counterparts, and so it is unfair to expect too much of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. The problem is that they make so many claims, and have had so many awards that they ostentatiously display, that the expectations are probably unfairly high. I have many very fond m
emories of Dubai and there were some memorable and pleasurable elements of our stay, although if I was to return to Dubai and wanted to stay at one of the Beach Hotels, I don't think I would choose the Jumeirah Beach Hotel again. In fact I would have to be suffering from severe beach withdrawal symptoms to stay anywhere other than the Fairmont.
After a trip to New York we decided to stay for the first time at Le Meridien at Heathrow. We had been aware of this hotel for years, knowing it originally as a Forte Grand with a 5 star rating. In recent years, following the sale of Forte, it lost one of its stars, but this by no means dissuaded us from trying it. We booked a parking inclusive package, direct with Forte (as it was still being called then) Central Reservations, costing £85. This included up to 15 days car parking on-site. Approaching the airport from the M4 spur, the first hotel close to Heathrow you come across is Le Meridien and passing it from the side you could begin to wonder if you have made the right choice. It does look pretty grotty, and the addition of a Travelodge at the rear in what used to be part of the hotel is not particularly reassuring. You could think, 'how good can this hotel be if it lends itself to containing a Travelodge?'. However on turning the corner onto Bath Road, the exterior image is slightly improved, and what is nonetheless a dated building, in common with the majority at Heathrow, appears less scruffy. On our first visit, it was unfortunate that the hotel was being refurbished and the reception area was non-existent. Instead the check in and concierge was in a makeshift tented/marquee area. As we were leaving our car for a week or so, we only had to inform them that we had booked a parking inclusive package, and ask if we needed to complete any form etc. Sometimes you are given a car park voucher (heaven knows why when you are flying off somewhere!), and other times they just check your booking and let you go. Unfortunately there was a bit of confusion, as the check in agent did not speak particularly good English and so there was a slight delay while we were given a voucher, and then I attempted to buy some Hotel Hoppa tickets, but soon we were able to be on our way. On our return just over a week later, the marquee affair was
still there, and although it was fairly early morning we had no problem checking in and being given the key to our room. The hotel did seem to be in the middle of the refurbishment (this was October) and it really was a work in progress. Walking to the lifts we moved from the rather dated dirty looking carpeted area to a lovely modern style business lounge and into the sparkling lifts. The corridors were similarly modern and light with new fittings, carpets and wall coverings. Once inside the room, you are immediately struck by its modern feel. The entrance to the room is wide with laminate flooring. In this vestibule, which has the bathroom off is the large fitted closet and opposite is the mini bar and tea/coffee making facilities in a corner unit, with mirror above (presumably so you can admire yourself making the tea!). Just as you enter the bedroom area, on one side is a full length mirror, and on the other a wooden trellis style alcove looking through towards the bed. This is a really attractive design feature, although the mirror really couldn't be in a less practical position. As you enter the bedroom the wood flooring stops and an attractive style of dark carpet begins with square pattern. The walls are white, punctuated by inspiring Kandinsky prints (that are throughout the corridors too). I had spent the last couple of days trawling New York art galleries for a Kandinsky calendar for my Sister, so when confronted by three in my room, didn't know whether to laugh or cry! Just inside the bedroom is a small padded leather seat/suitcase table with matching leather sofa alongside. The bed is of normal double size - maybe slightly larger, and is covered in crisp white soft bedcovers and plump white pillows, with one large yellow and beige cushion. The headboard is a very modern high affair with two light colours of wood and fitted flexible lamps. There are also two bedside tables in a dark wood with two more lamps. At
the bottom of the bed a large long unit with TV joins with a desk, forming an L Shape unit that more or less acts as a room divider. Near the tall window is a table with leather upholstered chair. Our room actually overlooked the large car park, but although the view was not inspiring, it was not ugly or unpleasant either. We were both really impressed with the room, and all the facilities. Iron and board were provided, along with mini bar, good lighting, hairdryer, TV with alarm, teletext etc. The bathroom was also sparkling new with lots of well lit mirror space and nice toiletries! Beware the extortionate phone charges though, regardless of whether you use a phone charge card. I made three short UK calls, and was charged a £2.50 connection charge each, on top of the charge made by my phone company. After sleeping during the day to get back on UK time, we got up later that afternoon. In the evening we started to look for something to eat and this is where we encountered our first problem with the hotel. Because of the renovations, there was one main restaurant open plus an Irish themed bar. As we only wanted a bar snack and were hoping for a drink and a sandwich etc in a modern style hotel bar, we were at a loss what to do. The Irish 'pub' was deserted, not really surprisingly, and so we decided to have a look elsewhere. We walked along Bath Road with the thought of trying the recently refurbished Posthouse (the white circular one!). We had tried to stay here a couple of years earlier, only to find that they had booked us into the Crest instead (doh!). To date we still haven't stayed at the Posthouse! The interior was really pleasing and we commented it was very much like what we expected Le Meridien would be like when it was finished. We managed to get some really fantastic Ciabatta sandwiches - just what the doctor ordered. At this time, Le Meridien and the Posthouse were still owned by the same company, and we explained th
at we were staying at Le Meridien and were credited with double the Frequent Stay points for our meal at the Posthouse. Next day we checked out of Le Meridien perfectly happy with our stay, even if we did have to eat elsewhere, and totally prepared to stay there another time. **************** In January after spending New Year in Toronto, we decided to stay at Le Meridien again. As it was a Thursday night, and often the bargains are only Friday to Sunday, Le Meridien was the best value parking inclusive package we found. We paid £85 again, but this time we booked through ABC Holiday Extras, as Le Meridien did not seem to have publicised their Park and Fly Package since the sale of the chain. When we had dropped off our car we were really pleased by the renovations. Where huge tarpaulins were last time was a impressive lobby with check in desks straight ahead. The main lifts were to the left with the bar and restaurant further past. Trying to find the Ladies, I sneaked a peak at the bar area, and the modern style made me look forward to my stay less than a week later. When we checked in for our night's stay it was again early morning, about 9am, and similarly to the time before, we were given the key to our room straight away. We were asked if we wanted to upgrade our room for £10, and thinking back to our lovely room we had last time, did not see the need. We were pointed in the direction of the lifts, different to the set we used last time and walked out into a corridor that could have been in a different hotel. Gloomy. The carpets were terribly dated and old, and it looked as if we had stumbled upon a long forgotten wing of the hotel. We entered our room hesitantly, and our worst fears were realised. The room was awful, old and way past needing refurbishment. Also we had been given a smoking room. For a couple of minutes we stood open-mouthed before we returned downstairs to Check In. A very pleasant
housekeeping maid asked us if we weren't happy with the room, and we said not really, and that it was a Smoking room. She confirmed all on this floor were. Once at check in I spoke to the same check in agent, and asked if we could take advantage of the upgrade after all, due to the grotty room. He made some excuse that I now forget, but which made no sense at all. For a second time we went to find our room, this time taking the other lifts, and emerging from them to a totally different image. The corridors and rooms this time were exactly like the ones we had experienced on our last visit, and contented we settled down for our daytime sleep in the superbly appointed and attractive room. We were glad on this occasion that we were able to visit the bar in the hotel. The bar itself is quite small, but pleasant to spend some time in. The drinks menu contains various bottled lagers, ciders etc but with few draught beers, and all were quite expensive. We chose a couple of light meals from the bar menu, and enjoyed them, although the innovative and delicious sandwiches we had at the Posthouse were still better. I would have no hesitation in staying at Le Meridien again but I would always check I was getting one of the nicer rooms. I filled in the guest questionnaire and was pleased to have my criticisms of the original room replied to specifically. I always think responding to comments made on these vague questionnaires beyond the call of duty, and I was impressed that the Management thought it justified to do so. I was told that when the refurbishments are completed that all rooms will be of the standard of our 'upgraded' room, and although I am a little cynical whether this is true (I am guessing they are a 'business' room), I am happy that the Management realise that some rooms are not up to standard. I expect the worst rooms are kept for coach tours etc and possibly for people who book through companies such as
ABC or Superbreak, but maybe we were just unlucky! Better to check if you are staying there. There are plenty of choices at Heathrow, a lot in the £80 to £100 price range, including at least 15 days parking. If the price is right I would stay at Le Meridien, but it wouldn't be top of my list compared to others like the new Marriott.
When we visited Dubai, we were determined to try Verre by Gordon Ramsay, being well aware of the Chef?s reputation for fine dining, and never having managed to visit his London restaurants. Verre is situated in the Dubai Creek Hilton, a newly opened modern hotel on the Deira side of the creek. In fact the hotel is so understated that we walked straight past it in the morning before our visit, looking out for it, and didn?t even spot it! We arrived at the hotel later that evening, taking in the quiet and stylish lobby with definite minimalist influences, up to the restaurant on the first floor. Due to the traffic we had arrived slightly late, and were shown straight to our table. The restaurant is actually smaller than I imagined, and the décor is very modern and unfussy. In a review I read before our visit, it is described as being like a ?goldfish bowl? but certainly when we visited you did not feel on display, as the expanse of glass partitions had light voile blinds. When we were seated we were asked if we would like a glass of champagne. I was a little dubious that this may be like signing a blank cheque and was anticipating a classic cocktail anyway instead. I asked if they had a cocktail menu, and this was greeted with a blank expression. We just ordered a bottle of mineral water while we perused the wine list. We were quickly brought some fresh bread, shortly followed by a small pre-appetiser, compliments of the chef. This consisted of langoustine and was actually very tasty and a great start to the evening. Very quickly we were pounced upon to order by one of the three people who were constantly hovering around our table. We were unfortunate enough to be seated right next to the waiter?s station, and so private conversation was very difficult. I ordered the sea scallops with celeriac puree for starter, my husband deciding upon the signature dish of lobster ravioli. For main course, I chose the poached poulet de bresse with f
oie gras sauce, and my husband opting for the local fish hammour. We also ordered a bottle of chardonnay We had read before our visit that assistance by the sommelier could not be avoided, but he just loitered and we were pleased that he obviously detected we did not want his help. Shortly afterwards the starters arrived, accompanied by detailed descriptions by the waiting staff. The scallops were perfectly cooked, just translucent in the middle. The accompanying sauce was pleasant but slightly bland. It didn?t overpower the scallops, but didn?t particularly compliment them either. The size was fairly large for a starter, and by the last couple of scallops I felt the edge had been taken off my appetite a little too much. Similarly my husband stated that he thought his tortelloni was a little hefty, and he was somewhat disappointed by the quality of the pasta that that was rather soggy. By the end of our starters we both felt fuller than we would have liked. We had a slight respite before the main courses arrived, and we were both dubious as to the richness of these as the starters had been rather overpowering in this respect. The main courses duly arrived, again accompanied by lengthy descriptions, which seemed never ending. The main courses were actually a pleasant surprise. My chicken with foie gras sauce was surprisingly simple and I had wished that the starter had been so classically simple. It possibly proves how rich the starter was, that a foie gras sauce is seen as a lighter element! The appearance of it was quite suspect, the poached chicken in thin slices looked quite unappetising and the strangely fashionable trend of what I can only describe as froth, all over the dish was quite unappealing. The various vegetables that complimented the dish were a little overcooked and this oversight was somewhat surprising. My husband?s hammour was again quite a large portion, and unusually he found it very difficult t
o fin ish. The constant hovering of the waiting staff by this time was getting slightly annoying. If my husband put down his knife and fork for a moment, to let his food settle, a waiter or waitress descended upon us, asking if everything was alright. When he left to visit the bathroom, I thought the waiter was going to send out a search party, and they nearly fell over themselves when he returned to the table. This was all stark contrast to the review I had read, where the service was highly commended and it was stated that the service was very low key. I had not experienced service so overbearing before, and I longed for the atmosphere of a Rick Stein or Marco Pierre White restaurant, where you are barely aware of the staff around you. When we had both had admitted defeat with our main courses, the plates were taken away. The Waitress asked if everything had been alright, as ?the chef would want to know why we hadn?t finished?. If this hadn?t been so shocking, it would have been laughable. It took me back to my childhood, where I was constantly embaressed and ashamed of my inability to finish anything. It is the first time we had practically been chastised for not devouring every morsel on the plate. We were both rather dubious about ordering a dessert, or at least one each, fearing the portions would be huge again. Quickly a pre-dessert was brought, which was very pleasant and refreshing. It was funny how the different courses were so different in style. We then decided to share a pannacotta. The dessert quickly arrived, and the portion was by contrast quite small, and we then wished we had ordered one each. The pannacotta was one of the best I have tasted ? I wouldn?t go as far as to say the best. The food had been a series of contrasts, but we were glad that at least the final course had lived up to expectations. Hot on the heels of dessert we were brought some petit fours to try to find room for. The same re
view I rea d had stated that the portions were quite small, and that you didn?t leave feeling full. Quite to the contrary, I felt full after the starter! I realise portions in Dubai are large by European and North American good restaurant standards, but even so, the dishes were quite hefty. Combine this with the richness of the cuisine, and you have a stodgy combination I wouldn?t say we were disappointed by Verre, but you are led to believe that Gordon Ramsay restaurants put great emphasis on quality and precision, and the various overcooked items as well as the large portion sizes and dubious presentation, did not reflect this. Also something else that you expect is perfect service, and this was far from the case. In my opinion overbearing service is never acceptable, in what should after all be a pleasant sociable experience. You got the impression dining at Verre was something to put yourself through, and something that you should do to prove you can appreciate fine food, and from listening to the loud spoken ex-pats on tables surrounding us, I wondered if this restaurant just served a purpose of reminding them of home, and of their success. I think and sincerely hope that in the London restaurant the standards would not be tolerated. I also think that on a basic level, this style of cuisine is not particularly suited to the climate in Dubai. Verre seems to be trying to be a copy of the successful Gordon Ramsay formula without taking into account the environment. Just because there is the cash in the area, in the form of wealthy ex-pats, to patronise the establishment, doesn?t mean it is ideal to replicate the Gordon Ramsay style here. I would have loved to have been able to wholeheartedly praise this restaurant, but it just made me realise just how good other top-end restaurants are and appreciate their combination of good service and good food. Our total bill came to 531 dirhams including tip, approximatley £90, and
so was surpris ingly good value for a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. To be honest if the service had been better, we may have spent more, and particularly if the cocktails had tempted us. If we had felt more relaxed we may have had a post dinner drink or gambled on a dessert each, with no fear of chastisement if we didn?t finish it!
Last year after our Canadian holiday we stayed at the Marriott Heathrow. We are always trying to find a Heathrow Hotel where we can spend an enjoyable last night of hotel living before coming home. Usually though we end up feeling quite disappointed with the service of the Heathrow hotels. In the past we have stayed at some which are just plain bad - the Radisson Edwardian, and the old Marriott Heathrow; some that are just OK - the Hilton, Posthouse Premier (it was then the Crest); and a couple that are pretty good - Renaissance and Le Meridien. However we still hadn't found one that we thought was great so we decided to try a different one yet again. We booked direct taking advantage of the Park and Fly package which cost £120, which unusually for parking inclusive packages also included breakfast. This is fairly expensive for Heathrow but does include up to 3 months car parking, so it is good for when you are away for longer than the usual inclusive 15 days. Your car however is taken away by the hotel to an off-site car park, and brought back on your return. You can in fact purchase a room through ABC Holiday extras in the UK for less - £82 which includes 15 days car parking in the hotel's car park, which would be even better as you don't have to wait for your car to be brought back. The Hotel is the newest at the Airport and is modern architecturally, with a large glass entrance forming part of the atrium and space-age style silvery-grey exterior walls. It is a pleasing addition to Bath Road, with the other concrete monstrosities. It is as convenient as any of the other Heathrow Hotels, all being afflicted with the necessity to catch (and pay for) the Hotel Hoppa to the airport. The only exception is the Hilton, linked to Terminal 4, but you pay for this convenience! We dropped our car off at the Hotel two weeks before our stay, and this usually causes much confusion, and you are never confident that your car won&
#39;t be clamped when you get back!! This year it was quite organised and we just had to fill in a form with details of when we would want our car back, we handed over our keys and caught the Hotel Hoppa to the terminal. When we returned, it was fairly early in the morning, about 9.30am, and so it was a lot earlier than the usual check in time. However we were given the key to our room, and we were happy to be able to go to sleep for a few hours. I am always surprised just how obliging all of the Heathrow Hotels are when you arrive in the morning and expect your room to be ready. Our room, although in a bright modern building, was very traditional Marriott; claret coloured patterned carpet, floral bedcovers, traditional wood furniture and light walls. Everything was very comfortable and practical, but unlike the recently refurbished Le Meridien which has a very modern style, did not reflect the hotel's age. None of the rooms offer a direct view of the runways, rooms either being on the left or right of the building or having just an internal atrium view. From our room we had a partial view of one of the runways, but it can't compare to the Renaissance for plane spotting!! The room had all the amenities you would require, including hairdryer, iron and board, interactive TV, radio etc. The mini bar, in common with all UK Marriott properties, is automatically operated, so if you move any of the items you get charged for them, and also means you cannot use it to store any of your own items. I always find this a bit annoying - plus I happened to nudge a Mars Bar one millimetre and hey presto, it was on our bill! The bed in the room was comfortable and although you were aware of the aircraft, the room was fairly well glazed and so noise was kept to a minimum. I never mind hearing a slight rumble from the aircraft anyway - I like to be aware of being at an airport!! The air conditioning in the room was very poor, and no amount of mess
ing around with the control panel made any difference at all to the temperature in the room. When we had caught up on some sleep we decided to get something to eat at the hotel. This is where the Marriott really overtakes the competition. The hotel has the most amount of restaurants of all the airport hotels we have stayed at. In the large airy atrium there is a bar serving light meals, as well as cocktails and drinks; there is also a more traditional 'pub' bar which is a much less attractive option. A Mediterranean style Tuscany Ristorante is one of the two main eating venues along with Allies American Grille. It is quite unusual to find four options for food plus a good room service menu, and it was also nice to have two casual bar options which often is what you require after a holiday visiting lots of more formal restaurants. We chose to grab a drink and some food in the atrium lounge, and also decided to sample their Long Island Iced Teas. This is only the second time we have sampled cocktails at a Heathrow Airport, usually being dissuaded by the inflated prices - it is rather irritating to have to pay £9+ when you have been paying half that amount throughout your holiday! Here at the Marriott though I think the cocktails were about £6 so we were tempted, and the Long Island Iced Teas were very good. Even my husband who very rarely is tempted from his classic Martinis or Manhattans had to admit it was extremely good, and a generous measure. The food menu consisted of various sandwiches and light snacks - we both chose a sandwich, which were fairly unadventurous, but good nevertheless. One disappointment was that in the Lounge there was no table service, and common with the majority of English hotels, you had to order at the bar. I know with Marriott in the UK, this varies from hotel to hotel, but I can't help wishing that an American chain would set a good example and always provide this service! At breakfas
t the next morning we were greeted by the friendliest breakfast attendant ever! It is unusual to be struck by good service at breakfast in particular where you find the staff often appear they need waking up too. By contrast our attendant took us to our table with a pleasant cheery manner, explaining in great detail how the breakfast service worked, and she left us with a smile on our faces. The breakfast selection was extensive, with fruit, yoghurts, cereals, cooked English breakfast and various fruit juices. I would definitely stay at the Marriott again, if they continue to offer competitive parking packages. I wouldn't say the hotel quite lives up to the hotels we have often come from in Canada (although the cocktails did), but it was the closest we've got so far. A relaxing, enjoyable and service orientated night's stay - quite unique at Heathrow!
My husband had been hankering after staying at Gleneagles for quite a few years, and so we decided to take a trip up to Scotland in March, with a two night stop at the hotel. We had read for many years of the various awards the resort had won, and this only intrigued us more. We booked online on the Gleneagles website, paying £185 per night for our classic room (the basic level) which also included breakfast. We also took advantage of the offer for a free bottle of house wine in the room, when booking online. We e-mailed the hotel a couple of times before our stay to make dinner reservations, and were very impressed by the speed of their reply and the attention to detail. We found the resort, situated near the village of Auchterarder, very easily. The hotel is approached up a long drive which cuts its way past the golf courses, and sweeps round with a view on your right of the hotel nestled amongst trees and formal gardens. We ignored the instructions on our confirmation and self parked our car in the car park. We should have driven up to the front entrance and had our bags taken care of and our car parked, and in hindsight this would have been easier. From the car park you approach the main entrance from the gravel roadway which sweeps around to the front door. The hotel is built of a light stone accentuated by the rows of sash windows with a steep grey slate roof, broken up by white sash dormer windows and lots of chimneys. The building is not a regular shape, and so has real character. To the left of the old building is attached the new wing, representing a definite change of style. This wing is built in a more modern style, but in subtle ways still fitting in with the old. Where the buildings join, the new wing is cladded with the de rigeur (and controversial) timber, but here is seemed perfectly in place. The timber made the new building blend in with the countryside and the aesthetic transition between old and new much easier.
The new wing has balconies leading off most of the rooms with small shrubs in pots at intervals between the balconies. The ground floor rooms at the front have small terraces instead with small palms giving a little privacy. The building is constructed of a light sandy concrete, and is very angular, which sounds awful but is actually perfectly suited to the surroundings. The top of the new wing is topped off with tall oblong chimney stacks which not only serve to separate the top sets of balconies, but also define the whole building and offers a similarity to the original building with its rows of traditional chimneys. In front of Braid House is a manicured lawn with a few benches to sit. We went inside through the sturdy revolving doors to a long space leading towards a small check in desk at the far end. The space, which has a very traditional feel, has a few sofas and places to relax and is fairly dark, with lots of wood panelling and has the atmosphere of a stately home. We approached the desk to check in; the extremely helpful and friendly receptionist commenting on the fact it was our anniversary. This was surprising and charming considering this fact had been a throw-away remark on one of our e-mails. We were told that we had been given an Estate Room in the new Braid House part of the hotel, and this room upgrade of two categories was very much appreciated. We went to fetch our suitcase, which was taken care of for us by the bellman, and waited for our room to be ready. Only a few minutes later we were personally shown to our room, through the rabbit warren alleys of the old building lined with upmarket shops with dark wooden façades, and with the smell of an old country house into the modern light and airy new extension. The two styles are very different, but are well designed to make the contrast very endearing. I was glad the hotel had decided against trying to build an extension in the style of the tradit
ional hotel, and had opted for the ultra modern touch. The corridors of Braid House are wide, carpeted in a cream checked carpet with the large solid black guest room doors at an angle to the corridor, which avoids the usual featureless effect of rows of identical doors. Our room, at the end of the corridor on the second floor, overlooked the hotel grounds and further towards the Perthshire Hills, which was a lovely sight. The room itself was very large with a wide entrance leading into the main bedroom space with floor to ceiling windows on one and a half sides of the room. The carpet was in a contemporary checked pattern, the king sized bed covered in white bedcovers and a green tartan style throw. The brown leather headboard with mirrors either side above the bedside units, added to the modern stylish feel, complemented by natural tone wallpaper and light beige and orange curtains. There was a large desk and TV unit, a sofa near the window with table, and matching bedside tables. The room had two large closets with black louvre doors either side of the bathroom's double louvre door entrance. All of the furniture - dressing table, TV unit etc were in a black wood with contrasting silver handles. The bathroom in the same style, was very modern and generously sized, with a double sink, free standing bath with shower attachment. The separate shower (with two heads) and toilet were each contained behind their own green frosted glass doors. The grey slate floor and neutral wall tiles gave the bathroom an extra feeling of quality. The bathroom also benefited from having a circular window giving natural light. Back inside the bedroom, a large open fire effect fire was a feature of the room, controlled by its own remote control, which also controlled the dimmer effect of all the various forms of lighting and also closed and opened the curtains. I think Gleneagles have really got these rooms perfectly right. They are very much
in the style of many modern 5 star hotels, reminding me of the Lowry in Manchester, if perhaps slightly more conservative. The style is very clean and uncluttered, with an emphasis on quality fabrics and furniture. This contributes to the relaxing and serene feeling of the rooms. All the little in room items that you might need are included, plus a lot more. A proper hairdryer, a minibar, iron, board and trouserpress, safe, DVD player and also a Bose bedside radio/CD player. The TV serves many purposes apart from just viewing the satellite channels. It offers free access to the Gleneagles website, internet access for a supplementary charge, games which you can play via the TV remote control (and which are too addictive!) and all the usual bill viewing facilities. Most of the rooms in Braid house have a balcony or terrace, and our balcony leading off the bedroom, looked out to the side of the building, and so was a very private place to sit. The hotel had left us a bottle of Moet et Chandon in the room with a card welcoming us to the hotel on our Anniversary. This again was a lovely touch, and we were very surprised and pleased that the hotel so far was living up to its reputation and our expectations. I can imagine numerous hotels that wouldn't care less if it was your anniversary or would try and sell you a bottle of plonk to have in your room. We had also been left a bottle of wine, due to us booking online, and we were quite impressed that this hadn't been forgotten or replaced by the bottle of champagne. The hotel is obviously associated with golf, but it isn't a foregone conclusion that to stay here you must play the game. My husband and I have no interest in the sport, but there is plenty to do around the estate. For instance there are three short (between 2 and 5km) signposted walks around the estate that take you around, past and sometimes through (watch out for flying golfballs) the golf courses. There is a we
ll equipped gym in the spa, as well as a large leisure pool and a lap pool. There are the usual Jacuzzis and saunas, and also an outside hot tub, ideal for the winter! The hotel is also a short drive from Perth and Stirling, and convenient for both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Although you feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere, the good transport links make it actually quite a convenient place to escape to. The organised leisure activities are also plentiful. There is off-road driving, cycling, falconry and fishing amongst others to participate in. The hotel also has tennis courts and a croquet lawn. The hotel has more than ample dining options. The award winning contemporary restaurant, by Andrew Fairlie is one of the two fine dining options, along with the Strathearn, which is housed in much more traditional surroundings. For a more casual alternative, there is the Club Restaurant adjacent to the spa, and also the Dormy Restaurant in the Clubhouse. The main bar just inside the main entrance is the main choice for pre-dinner drinks, although the Club also has a small informal bar area. There are also a couple of lounges where I am sure you can be served drinks if you wanted. On both of our evenings we went for a cocktail in the bar. The bar, like much of the hotel, was quite classically elegant, with subdued light and lots of huge comfy seats and sofas. The bar was positioned in the centre of the room, and the large picture windows looked out on two sides over the estate. We didn't wait long at all for service, as can often be the case in large cocktail lounges. The cocktail menu consisted of a few variations on the martini theme, predictably quite a lot of whisky based cocktails, but most of the classics were not indicated, probably due to the fact that people will just order them anyway. We sampled a couple of martini variations, as well as a Cosmopolitan. The menu was not the best I have seen, mainly due to the
variations trying to be a little too different. The drinks we ordered however were very enjoyable, but maybe not as good as we had sampled the day earlier in the Balmoral in Edinburgh. This evening we were surprised at how quiet the bar was - it could have benefited from being a little more lively. No doubt the hotel is suffering too from the lack of American travellers. The first evening we dined at Andrew Fairlie Restaurant. This is actually a small restaurant, with a modern but intimate setting. The service we experienced was impeccable. The menu is priced depending on the number of courses - for three courses the cost was £55. The menu includes at least one vegetarian option for both starter and main course and also has a couple of fish/seafood dishes. For starter I ordered one of the restaurant's signature dishes, home smoked lobster, with a lime and herb butter sauce. This was one of the best restaurant dishes I had ever tasted, and would have made an equally good main course with a whole lobster. The smokiness perfectly complimented the tenderness of the lobster. My husband chose the Skye Scallops with Pigs Cheek and Celeriac Puree. He also commented that the various elements of the dish worked perfectly together For main course, I decided upon the Cep and Potato Pave with Artichoke Barigoule, which was a very finely and intricately layered stack. Although the appearance was a little dull, the flavours were very well suited. What could have been a very bland dish, was executed so well that it was very tasty. My husbands Venison with Confit Potato and Sauce Grand Veneur similarly did not disappoint. For dessert we both chose the Sorbets with Cinnamon Madeleines. In total we spent £150 in the restaurant, including a bottle of wine and mineral water. This I think was a very fair price for the quality of food and service in a 5 star hotel. Breakfast is served in one of the more traditional dining rooms of the hotel, with a
pomp and ceremony that you very rarely find. The service is very professional, quite unusual for this meal, when you often get the impression the staff are half asleep too! There is a good choice of cold breakfast items, and also a vast array of hot food, which is served for you from the hot plates. This was much better than helping yourself as is often the case. The following evening we had booked a table in the Club Restaurant. According to the hotel directory the bar also served cocktails, but this turned out not to be the case, so we returned to the main bar again. The Club is a very casual alternative, with no pretentions. However the service is far beyond what would be expected from a restaurant of this kind usually. The food is typical bistro fare, and we ordered a Tomato and Red Pepper Soup and Smoked Salmon with Sour Cream for starters. For main course, we chose the Oven-Fired Chicken Saltimboca with Linguine and the Salmon. All the dishes were of a very good quality, in particular the smoked salmon and the Chicken (which had potential to be disappointing, but which was actually one of the most satisfying chicken dishes I have tried). Although the setting was more casual, and the menu sounded fairly simple, you didn't feel it was out of place in a hotel of this sort. The cost of £77 was fairly expensive for this style of restaurant, but was justified due to the service and quality. The hotel was a great combination of a traditional resort with a modern twist. It was exciting to have such a contrast from the old part of Gleneagles, which does definitely have the feel of a country house, to the sparkling newness of the fashionable new wing, more in the fashion of a stylish contemporary 5 star hotel. We checked out of the hotel, perfectly happy with our stay. We were given some shortbread for our journey home, and again it is the little touches that make hotels such as this very special indeed. In terms of v
alue for money, a similar hotel such as Banff Springs in Canada costs more, and due to its size cannot hope to offer the kind of personal service we experienced at Gleneagles. Similarly properties here in the UK, such as Cameron House, also in Scotland are similarly priced but without the reputation and I am guessing the attention to detail. I therefore thought the whole experience represented good value for money. We have become very jaded when staying at hotel that wins lots of awards. Having stayed at the Best Hotel in the World (according to the Daily Telegraph), the Jumeirah Beach Hotel a couple of months before, we were a little dubious about how Gleneagles, another consistent winner (Best UK Hotel) would fare. We were pleased though to at least on this occasion, be able to agree wholeheartedly with the accolade! I would definitely return to Gleneagles. If I considered staying at various other Golf or Country House Resorts, I think I would probably decide not to gamble on them (and staying at hotels here in the UK is regularly just that ? a gamble!) and return to Gleneagles instead.