Hitchin Lavender: Heaven in Hertfordshire

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No – it’s not Provence. This is Hertfordshire’s Hitchin Lavender on a sunny Sunday morning in July. Bees buzz, butterflies flit through the purple haze, and the scent of lavender hangs heavy on the air. Visitors are welcome and the £4 admission includes a paper bag and pair of scissors so you can cut some to take home with you. Wander up the hill, find a quiet bench at the top, and enjoy the view. Then stroll down and head for the lavender shop and café housed in a 17th-century barn. Oh and go early: this is a pleasure best enjoyed without too many other people around. Read my blog at www.thetravelwrapcompany.com Further information at www.hitchinlavender.com

Ham Yard Hotel, Soho: Hotel Review

 Ham library 1

 This is an edited version of my blog for The Travelwrap Company. Read it in full at www.thetravelwrapcompany.com

Kit and Tim Kemp, owners of the Firmdale group of hotels, opened Ham Yard in June. It’s tucked away in the heart of Soho, arranged around a little courtyard garden, set with tables and shaded by white parasols. Inside, sunlight pools on the pale wood floors, eclectic artworks cover the walls, colourful lighting hangs from the ceilings and objéts from around the globe are scattered throughout. Yet for all its bright and breezy pizzazz, Ham Yard is pervaded by a feeling of tranquility – you’d never know Piccadilly Circus, not to mention all the cafés and restaurants of Soho, are on the doorstep.

Ham orangery 2

My favourite spot on the ground floor is the library-sitting room (pictured top), its walls lined with fabrics from Kit’s collection for Christopher Farr, the hand-embroidered Suzani curtains from her own textiles collection. Oh, but I also love the drawing room, with its hand-painted Scandinavian bureaux and its French fireplace…the restaurant, where the menu features the best of fresh British produce…the hip bar, where you can order small dishes, such as chorizo sausage rolls and barbequed octopus, to go with your Ham Yard Tonic (Portobello Road gin, Campari, St Germain, grapefruit bitters and homemade tonic). Downstairs not only is there a spa and gym (with a hypoxic chamber, if you please) but a 176-seat cinema-theatre and a 1950s bowling alley, available for private hire.

Ham bedroom 6

And then there are the rooms: 91 rooms and suites, plus 24 apartments, all individually decorated and furnished in Kit’s inimitable style, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing masses of natural light and an authentic Soho view (don’t worry about authentic Soho noise – the windows are triple-glazed).

The pièce de résistance at Ham Yard is its Moroccan-style roof garden, high above the chaotic streets of Soho, complete with a herb garden and an ancient olive tree amid a carpet of lavender. There’s a gold baby grand that functions as an enormous ice bucket. Well, you’re going to need a lot of ice in your Ham Yard Tonic…

Ham Yard Hotel, 1 Ham Yard, London W1D 7DT; 020 3642 2000; www.firmdalehotels.com; doubles from £310 per night

 

Four Seasons des Bergues, Geneva: Hotel Review

I love a Four Seasons beach resort, but I think the slick, sophisticated brand is best suited to cities. Think of the George V in Paris or the Four Seasons in Florence. And actually, the Four Seasons des Bergues, right by Lake Léman (Lake Geneva), is reminiscent of both, only on a more intimate scale. Yes, the Louis Philippe influences are there – the lavish first-floor Royal Suite could be a wing of Versailles – but this hotel also offers some very contemporary suites, stuffed with state-of-the-art technology. In my lovely, light and spacious corner suite (no 314) a section of the bathroom mirror suddenly started showing the Winter Olympics. Seriously cool.

Mind you, all was not quite perfect, thanks to that same state-of-the-art technology (all linked by Wi-Fi). I couldn’t make the iPod dock work. Neither could the chambermaid, who summoned a more senior member of Housekeeping, who summoned a technician. It was only after a second technician arrived and made a couple of phone calls, that we got it going. I didn’t dare touch it again.

Top marks for the full-size Acqua di Parma products in the bathroom, the wine fridge and the triple layer of drapery (nobody does curtains better than Four Seasons). There was also a Nespresso machine. Hurrah! I know luxury hotels would rather not have them – exemplary service, after all, is at the very core of their business. And tea- and coffee-making facilities used to be considered rather three-star. But thanks to Nestlé and its marvelous machine, even Four Seasons guests are allowed to make their own these days. And unlike certain other hotel brands, Four Seasons offers a generous helping of Nespresso pods. Perfect at 7am when you aren’t yet ready to face the day, let alone a waiter from room service.

My fabulous room was really just a sideshow for the main events: the fabulous El Lago restaurant, recently awarded a Michelin star (not always a recommendation, I grant you) and Spa Mont Blanc. I was dining alone in El Lago and normally a solo dinner takes me about half an hour. It took two hours to work my way through the eight-course truffle tasting menu, each dish more delicious and more truffle-y than the last. I lingered over every mouthful. I even outlasted the two businessmen on my left.

Dinner would have been the highlight of my stay – had I not spent the following afternoon in Spa Mont Blanc on the top three floors of the hotel. I loved the fact that this spa is Swiss and proud of it: think crisp, clean décor in mountain stone, aged oak and regional woods. None of that let’s pretend we’re in Southeast Asia nonsense here. On the top floor there is a beautiful infinity pool overlooking Geneva and a large spa pool, which I had all to myself. Apparently, there was underwater music in the pool, but needless to say, I couldn’t work out how to turn it on. Treatment products at Spa Mont Blanc are ESPA, which of course is British, and Swiss Perfection by Clinique La Prairie (Four Seasons is the only hotel in Geneva to offer the latter). After my massage and facial (both excellent) something very Swiss happened: with my steaming glass of healthy ginger tea came two heart-shaped biscuits oozing ganache. You wouldn’t get that in Southeast Asia…

What it costs: doubles from £450 a night; suites from £1,750, excluding breakfast.

Read my Telegraph review of Four Seasons des Bergues at telegraph.co.uk/travel/hotel/130355/Four-Seasons-Hotel-des-Bergues-Geneva-hotel-review.html 

Desert Palm, Dubai: Hotel Review

Dubai hotels. On the beach with a city backdrop or hidden away in the desert, right? But Desert Palm (www.desertpalm.peraquum.com) is neither. It’s part country club part boutique hotel (perhaps slightly more the former than the latter) on a leafy polo estate, less than 30 minutes’ drive from downtown Dubai.

The 160-acre estate is owned by Ali Albwardy, patron of the Dubai Polo Team. Polo is Albwardy’s principal concern – three prestigious tournaments are held here and there are practice matches three times a week – but he has built a number of private residences and a hotel so that fellow enthusiasts can share his passion.

The hotel – managed by Per Aquum – is small, with only 18 rooms and 6 villas plus 13 private residencies. It’s all very slick and contemporary, with a fantastic Lime spa (even 10-goalers need a massage) and extremely good food in its Rare restaurant. There’s a pool with a sun terrace and even a small patisserie. Staff are delightful and – nice touch – are kitted out in polo shirts.

We arrived just as a practice match was about to start. We were whisked down to the polo field (there are four; the main one right by the hotel) and served afternoon tea as we eyed up the polo players. After the match (I was distracted by the contents of the cake stand and confess I have no idea who won) we visited Albwardy’s ponies in their breeze-cooled stables.

I stayed in a Palm Suite on the first floor. Its location above the open-sided terrace-lounge meant that it was a little noisy during the day and early evening, but it did have a grandstand view of the main polo field. No balcony but at least the windows opened and the minimalist, almost masculine room, was very comfortable.

There’s a riding school here, too, and guests can take private lessons or go for a gentle hack. I don’t ride and I’m a bit nervous of horses at close quarters, but the sight of a horse and its rider tripping across the misty horizon early one morning at Desert Palms was absolutely enchanting.

You don’t have to be horse-mad to appreciate Desert Palms. It would work well as a base if you want sunshine and a pool, but find the thought of a holiday among skyscrapers unappealing.

What it costs from £245 per night, room only.

Read my Telegraph review at telegraph.co.uk/travel/hotel/130539/Desert-Palm-Dubai-hotel-Dubai-review.html

 

 

In my suitcase: the new Rosewood Jumby Bay/Heidi Klein collection

I’ve just viewed the new Jumby Bay/Heidi Klein beachwear collection. It was inspired, they say, by ‘long, lazy, sunshine-filled days’ at the luxury island resort of Jumby Bay (www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/jumby-bay-antigua) in Antigua and the pretty design mirrors the blues and greens of the Caribbean. In these images the fabric looks like tie-dye, but the pattern is actually closer to snakeskin. What I love most about the 10-piece collection is that the bikini comes in three different styles and cuts – something Heidi Klein is particularly good at – and if you prefer a bit more fabric, there’s a swimsuit. I love Jumby Bay. I love Heidi Klein. Together they’re a match made in holiday heaven. You can buy the whole collection from Heidi Klein, online at www.heidiklein.com, and from the Jumby Bay boutique. Select pieces are available from Harrods and Net-A-Porter.

Cocobay, Antigua: hotel review

 

I thought I had been to all of Antigua’s resort hotels, but Cocobay (www.cocobayresort.com) is a new one on me. And it’s a real find – perfect, I’d say,  for couples and single travellers who don’t have a Carlisle Bay budget, but who want peace and quiet – and a bit of style.

Perched on a promontory above a sandy beach, this is a small resort, with just 57 Caribbean-style cottages and four plantation houses,  two restaurants and a couple of bars. My pretty cottage was simple but very comfortable. The private veranda had a couple of adirondack chairs and a hammock and if I peered over the foliage I could just about see the sea. The bathroom was a bit tired – so were the towels – and I soon discovered that if I left the veranda doors open for long, a cheeky bird or two would fly in, rip open one of the little packets of sugar by the kettle and scatter the contents over the floor.

The resort has two pools , both of them rather chic with great views of the bay; the sandy beach has plenty of sun loungers and palapa parasols as well as water sports and there’s a second beach within a few minutes’ stroll. The resort was virtually full when we were there but neither the beach nor the pools felt crowded.

Food? Well, pretty good and certainly plentiful – buffet style at breakfast and lunch; à la carte in the evenings. The second, more romantic restaurant is only open in the evenings but was closed the night we wanted to try it.  The cocktails were definitely five-star and given that Cocobay is an all-inclusive resort, we happily over-indulged, working our way down the menu (Eden, made from vanilla vodka, sour apple, triple sec and lime cordial, was our favourite).

Service was friendly and enthusiastic – though the broken safe in my room never did get mended; nor did the overhead fan (the air-con worked).  Otherwise the only flies in an otherwise pretty perfect ointment were the WiFi which cost $10 a day but only managed intermittent connection, and the voracious no-see-ums on the beach (the resort shop did a roaring trade in antihistamene cream).

What it cost:  Expedia was offering a special deal on flights with British Airways and I paid £1,400 for four days/three nights in November 2013. The airport transfer was around $30.

 

In my suitcase: check out this Bogner video for 2013/14

I already have a gilet and a black ski jacket by German luxury skiwear brand Bogner (I bought it half price last season in the Bogner store in St Moritz). But now I’ve seen this season’s video (so much more than an ad), I’m hankering after more… Check it out (skip the preamble; the cool stuff starts at 0.46).

Bouquet for British Airways

British Airways gets a lot of flak. Not all of it undeserved. But here’s a BA story that ends well. My  suitcase was damaged on a recent BA flight from Antigua. I took it to the BA desk in the baggage hall, expecting to fill in a form which I would obviously then have to follow up with a phone call and several irrate several emails. They took a few details and promised to send me a new case. I know what you’re thinking. So was I. Airline customer services simply don’t work that way. Well, sometimes they do work that way. Two days later, a gleaming new suitcase was delivered to my door – absolutely free. It’s not often I say it, but hats off to BA.