Winter is a good time to spa. My skin is a shade of inexplicable grey, hair is dull and no amount of lavender tea lifts the mood. So it was with relish that on a cold, crisp day in January I packed a case and accepted an invitation to experience Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa; a four star resort set against the backdrop of the Oxfordshire countryside.
Bicester is now renowned for luxury outlet shopping thanks to the retail park which has made the once quiet town its home since 1995. This has also made Bicester effortlessly accessible. Trains from Marylebone, London to Bicester North run on the hour each day. By car, from London, it’s a journey time of around 90 minutes or less.
As the name Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa suggests there is both an 18-hole golf course and a magnificent spa on the resort. Other facilities include a health club with gym, tennis courts, water spa and a 20-metre heated indoor pool perfect for families with young children.
My Saturday morning however, was spent at the Forest of Wellbeing Spa which has six treatment rooms. There are a variety of holistic treatments including full body massage therapies. Beauty treatments and facials using Elemis products have been designed to compliment the wellness offering. The 60-minute Jessica Deluxe Pedicure (£47), I opted for, included a soak, scrub and massage; a relaxing experience which made my toes sparkle. If visiting on weekends I recommend reserving early. The treatment rooms were busy throughout the weekend.
There are 52 rooms and suites at the family-owned Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa. The vast double room I occupied was spacious with a queen-size bed and soft sheets worthy of five stars. The twee soft yellow and grey decor was relaxing and fitting given the surroundings. It balanced the sense of country living with a modern space. Of course the testament to any hotel room is how well you sleep in it. I’m happy to add that my night here was perfectly restful and the service impeccable.
Eating and Drinking
Grays is the in-house restaurant which has spectacular lakeside views through floor to ceiling windows. Incidentally, you do not need to be a patron of the resort to eat here. The à la carte menu,created by Executive Chef Alan Paton, is a celebration of local food. Fish is sourced from a single sustainable, traceable supplier and local farms supply meat and fresh produce. This low-impact dining however makes no compromises on taste.
Starter of purple broccoli, Oxford blue cheese and blood orange wild rice (£7.50) was exceptional. The same was true of the pan-fried salmon with orzo pasta, kale and wild mushroom broth (£18.75). The standout dish for me was dessert; bread and butter pudding with vanilla ice cream (£7).
Before my departure on Sunday I enjoyed brunch at the Portrait Lounge; a more casual dining space. The menu here is best enjoyed with friends in small dishes as you might order tapas. I shared a tremendous butternut squash soup with bread (£5) with a companion. The vegetable burger (£13) and sweet potato fries were a notable winning combination.
Things to do
If golfing and pampering is not all you demand from a hotel stay there’s still plenty more to do. Afternoon Tea (£18 and £22 with a glass of Prosecco) is served at Grays Restaurant between 12 to 5pm from Monday to Friday and starts a little later at 12.30pm at weekends. From savoury salmon, cucumber and ham sandwiches to wonderfully light scones and cakes this was an absolute treat.
Bicester Village retail outlet is certainly worth a visit if you wish to break up your stay. It’s only a five minute journey and taxis can be arranged at the reception. Hotel guests enjoy an additional 10% off at Bicester Village via a QR code added to your smart phone wallets. Alternatively you can also access a link from the hotel booking confirmation which offers the same discount.
Do you really need any more reasons to visit Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa? Well, here’s another: Use code BHSPA10 and receive 10% off Spa Breaks when you book direct.
East London’s latest floating hotel, Good Hotel, sparked a great deal of curiosity amongst the locals when it arrived here last September. The structure which made it’s way across the North Sea and into the Royal Docks (pulled along by tug boats) will stay anchored in its scenic home for the next five years. Built in 2007 as a prison to hold illegal immigrants the hotel works on a non profit basis but offers premium hospitality.
Does it work? Yes! I spent a night at the Good Hotel and experienced all the hospitality and service of it’s well trained and well informed staff. The proof that it works is in the pudding. It has opened a second hotel based on the same model in Antigua, Guatemala.
Mission Good Hotel is to train long-term unemployed locals in a variety of jobs in the hospitality industry. A training program named, “Good Training”, once completed qualifies participants to a three-month contract at Good Hotel. Furthermore, it progresses to negotiations in the city’s hotel business on the participant’s behalf. This adds weight and value to those seeking a career in the industry but have been unable to break in to it.
Mine was a double deluxe room with waterfront view with the same minimalist theme which runs through the hotel. The crisp cotton sheets were as soft as silk and the down pillows ensured a wonderful night of sleep for me. A cute addition was the complimentary “Worry Doll” from Guatemala, left on my pillow, to carry away worries while I slept. An endearing personal touch which connects you to the philosophy of the hotel.
Breakfast was included as part of my stay. It was an array of food to satisfy even the most demanding patrons. It was obvious that the hotel attracted a wide range of people. There were families on city breaks, couples on romantic weekends, solo travellers as well as business travellers enjoying breakfast. The buffet style offering served a classic English, continental, yoghurts and a variety of cereals and seasonal fruit. Did I mention? All the food is sourced locally.
The Roof Terrace
Perhaps the icing on the cake at Good Hotel is its roof terrace which serves as a bar and chill out space. The bar opens from 11am until 9.30pm. It serves breakfast juices, healthy kale, spinach and pineapple smoothies (simply out of this world!) as well as cocktails and snacks. A recent addition to the terrace’s itinerary is rooftop yoga which is proving equally popular with guests and locals.
London has seen a wave of roof top bars open up all over the capital recently. East London in particular has relatively underground, cool terrace bars which are yet to be overrun by the masses. The roof top at the Good Hotel however, stands out because of the breath taking view it offers while you sip a drink. (My favourite was the strawberry daiquiri in case you’re wondering). There is a panoramic view of the Thames as well as the Royal Docks. The wooden decking against the white furniture simply adds to the atmosphere here. This is an urban oasis in the heart of London making no compromises. Only winners here. Be sure to check them out.
“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot
Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s heritage cities located in the Central Province. The city lies on an elevated plateau which is surrounded by hills and tea plantations. The air here is cooler than the rest of the island. Kandy was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is home to one of the most important places of worship in the Buddhist world – The Temple of the Tooth relic. Kandy lake and the decorative wall which surround it are as famous as the temple itself.
A childhood spent in Sri Lanka means I have visited Kandy on numerous occasions. We mainly visited the Temple of the Tooth. For the most part it was a quick stop on our way elsewhere. As such, I had never really explored or experienced Kandy outside of the Temple. All I knew of this city I had learned through my grandmother and her fantastic bed time tales of legendary kings and kingdoms past.
So, with high hopes and nostalgia I arrived in Kandy. The 5.55am train Podi Menike from Colombo brought me to Kandy through sleepy villages and winding hillsides. We stopped briefly in the small towns of Gampaha, Peradeniya and Kadugannawa. As we ascended to higher ground Podi Menike chugged along slower and slower up the hills. This is a wonderfully scenic journey not to be missed. Each time the train stopped I was treated to quaint colonial train stations where time had changed nothing, not even the chairs.
Kandy Railway Station was no different. It’s a hive of activity; platforms are abuzz with people going about their daily lives alongside travellers on their way out or arriving with excitement. Outside, rows of local tuk tuk drivers wait eagerly to take you to your destination. My journey from the station to my hotel Ozo, Kandy was a mere 5 minutes and cost just Rs.300 (£1.65 approximately).
Modern, airy and welcoming lobby of Ozo, Kandy.
I arrived at Ozo to a warm Kandyan welcome. My room was ready and the check in was quick even though I had arrived almost three hours earlier than scheduled. They staff at Ozo are mostly Kandyans which means you have access to great local knowledge. They were all eager to help when I explained that I had visited the Temple of the Tooth several times and did not plan on visiting again. I had several alternative places suggested before I finished my welcome drink.
Spectacular views of the Kandyan hills from Bommu Bar & Lounge.
Graffiti wall mural by Parisien street artist, “Marko 93”.
Freshened up and changed I walked up to Bommu Bar and Lounge on the rooftop. When you get here, order yourself a cold lemon juice while you take in the spectacular views of the hillside which include the Knuckles mountain range. I felt the weariness of my early start fall away as I exhaled and synchronised with the nature surrounding me. Similarly, the attached pool was an oasis of tranquility. The deep blue tiles against the lush greenery of the hills offered a harmonious mix of nature and luxury – a fine balance perfectly achieved. A graffiti mural by Parisian street artist, Marko 93, sets a dramatic backdrop against the pool bringing this ancient city to a whole new generation of modern day travellers.
I finished every day of my stay back at Ozo to nap, refresh and sample it’s famed dinner. I was spoilt for choice between traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Miniature starters were beautifully presented. Mains were a range of vegetarian and meat dishes. Vegetables and salads were seasonal and colourful. Deserts were either mini sweet delights or an array of bright and juicy tropical fruit. Nothing had been spared and the attention to detail was not lost on me. Needless to say all of it was simply delicious.
After dinner each evening I headed back up to Bommu which transforms into a pulsating venue after dark. Each night I stayed up far later than I intended to enjoying the cool mountain air and smoking shisha under the stars.
My cosy bed with elephants watching over me.
What does one do with such a view?
A perfect English breakfast in the Kandyan hills.
My bed was cosy because Kandyan air is pretty crisp at night. I had soft down pillows and crips white sheets – essentials for a restful night. Sri Lankans are early risers in general and each morning I woke up earlier than usual, refreshed and rested to stunning views of the hillside.
The Eat2Go restaurant here turned out the most incredible breakfasts. A buffet style offering ranged from traditional Sri Lankan favourites such as hoppers and lunu miris to continental breakfasts of croissants and waffles were a feast to behold. My heart skipped a beat as I watched the chef whip up the most welcoming breakfast of all – A perfect English breakfast in the Kandyan hills. Now that’s luxury!
I spent two nights here and planned to explore the path less travelled. If you visit Kandy for first time Temple of the Tooth is a must see. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya 5km west of Kandy is another. Visit both – you have not seen Kandy if you haven’t experienced these two places.
Udawatta Kele Sanctuary
Incredible flora and fauna in the forest.
Lady Horton Walk at Udawatta Kele
Udawatta Kele – Home to Torque Macaque
My first stop was Udawatta Kele Sanctuary which is a protected forest. At 257 Acres it covers a larger area than the gardens at Peradeniya. I gave myself 3 hours, wore hiking boots and carried water. Snacks are not a great idea as littering is not encouraged and also because the forest is home to Torque Macaque (monkeys) – notorious snatchers!
There are nocturnal mammals here including the slender loris. Flying squirrels, Vampire bats, mongoose and many species of birds and snakes inhabit the forest but don’t expect to see them all. It is said that Udawatta Kele was used as a pleasure garden by Kandyan kings and the pond at the entrance was used for bathing. There is also religious importance here – three Buddhist meditation hermitages and rock shelter dwellings for monks are also in the forest. As such this protected area is an amazing hike encompassing all that this heritage city has to offer.
The map I was given at the entrance with my ticket was vague and basic. I found it difficult to follow and used my instincts and sense of direction to find my way around. It’s also humid inside the forest so plan your time before you enter it.
Disclaimer: This is a forest and animals, though accustomed to people, are still wild. There is no emergency call system. Please exercise good judgement and common sense when visiting. Animals should not be approached and flash photography may alarm them. (There is a fee of Rs. 660 (Approximately £3.70) to enter).
Kandy Garrison Cemetery
My second stop of the day was a more pensive visit to the Kandy Garrison Cemetery also known as the British Garrison Cemetery. Established when the British captured Kandy in 1817 it contains graves of 195 British nationals who lived and died in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known prior to Independence). The most notable aspect here is that almost all died young of tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria. On most of my previous trips I have stopped here to visit these graves. Although this is not a tourist attraction it still forms a part of Kandy’s heritage. This cemetery exists on the grounds of the Temple of the Tooth and is still maintained by the British but the land maintained by the “Diyawadana Nilame” (chief custodian of the Temple of the Tooth) – a historical balance of power dating back to colonial times.
Tete-a-tete around the lake.
Street food sellers offer a variety of goods around the lake.
Bombai Mutai – Sri Lankan candy floss generally sold on the streets.
Kandy Town Centre
My second day plan was to really get to the heart of this town. So I headed to the city center by tuk tuk for a day of walking, sampling street food and general rummaging around. It’s a safe but busy place to walk around but I did find the touts here irritating and dealt with them firmly. There are markets selling vegetables, clothes, lottery tickets and every local product imaginable. For the foodie in me there were bakeries and street food stalls selling a variety of sweet and savoury treats – all of which I tried. (Do exercise caution if you’re unsure of something).
The best part of my walk around town was getting close to the lake. Walking is a national pastime in Sri Lanka. Walking around lakes in the shade are even more popular. Kandy lake is a good place to get close to Kandyans. You will find families feeding ducks after visiting the Temple. Street food vendors here cater to all your culinary needs. The last Sinhalese king created the lake in 1807 beside the Temple of the Tooth and decorated the lake with the walakulu (clouds) wall. He couldn’t have known that it’s simple charm would stand as a focal and meeting point centuries later.
All in all this time round, I felt that I had rediscovered the Kandy of my childhood. It certainly has a great deal to offer the most ardent traveller. I found everything I wanted to experience in one place – history, culture, cuisine and nature. Kandy has restored itself to the bustling melting pot of it’s heritage. My grandmother would have been proud.
In collaboration with OZO Kandy Sri Lanka. www.ozohotels.com/kandy-srilanka
Prices start from GBP 64 per night for a Sleep King room, based on two sharing a room (exclusive of VAT and service charge and subject to availability). For stays until 30 June 2017, stay a minimum of 3 consecutive nights at OZO Kandy Sri Lanka and receive 15% off your booking.