Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa: Review

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.

Spa

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.

Rooms

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.

Rooms at Bicester Village Golf and Spa cost £99 per night and include breakfast. Spa breaks start from £132 per person. To book visit www.bicesterhotelgolfandspa.com  or call  01869 241204.

Seven passionate reasons to visit Seville

“Religion and bullfighting go hand in hand in Seville,” the guide says to me as we walk in to a typically Andalusian restaurant for a spot of lunch. It was perhaps the most accurate introduction to a new city that I’ve ever had; the embodiment of it is everywhere you look. The world’s largest Gothic cathedral sits but a stone’s throw from the most important bull-ring in the world. Seville is a city of passions albeit on the opposite ends of the scale. Here are seven reasons of passion to visit a city with an unconventional past and a prodigious present.

Religion

Around 20% of the population in Seville are Roman Catholic and it is home to 200 churches dedicated to the faith. In addition to its churches the city is adorned with religious iconography at every turn. You will spot carvings, paintings and even alters for Virgin Mary, Christ and saints outside restaurants, on walls, alleyways and the most unexpected places. They are always brightly coloured, artistic and wholly up lifting.

Bull fighting

Whether you agree with the practice or not bull fighting is an integral part of Andalusian culture. It has been so since the Roman empire. Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, with a capacity of 12,000 and over 15 annual events, holds First Category status as a bull ring in Spain. For a matador to be carried through its gates on the shoulders of fellow matadors is considered a tremendous honour.

Each April the city is host to Seville Fair which is one of the most renowned bull-fighting festivals in the world. The crowds in Seville are considered the most onerous as they watch the fights with quiet, intense focus as opposed to other bull fights where visitors pay little attention. Tickets are sold in advance and frequently sell out within hours. Alternatively there are also tours of the building and a museum open to visitors.

Flamenco

In the heart of Seville beats duende; a word that is impossible to accurately translate from Spanish. At best it can mean passion or spirit relating to a performance. And the performance is of course flamenco. To leave without experiencing flamenco would be a terrible sin. It is said that more intimate the space the more intense your experience of duende. Los Gallos, Plaza Santa Cruz is the best place for it. The venue has hosted flamenco troupes since 1966 and retains an antiquated charm. Crossing the city and walking through ancient squares, surrounded by stately buildings, to arrive at this tiny venue will set the tone for the most magnificent evening of dance that will move you to tears.

Architecture

In 1492 Catholic monarchs won the last Moorish bastion ending 800 years of Muslim rule in southern Spain. In the same year Christopher Columbus stumbled on a ‘New World’ across the Atlantic Ocean. These events ushered in Spain’s Golden Age (16th and 17th centuries) and Seville was at the very heart of this renaissance.

This Moor/Catholic history is none more apparent today than it is in the city’s resplendent architecture. Seville’s imposing Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is built on what was the city’s mosque. The unmistakeable symmetrical Islamic detail in the bell tower being a reminder that it was once the minaret of the mosque. This blend of architecture commonly known as Mudéjar architecture is now typical of Seville’s historic buildings.  Royal Alcázar Palace, Casa de Pilatos, Archive of the Indies, and the breathtaking Plaza de España are all finest examples of Mudéjar architecture.

The scent

“What’s that smell?” were the first words to glide past my lips as I stepped off the coach, for the first time, in Seville. Streets here are lined with citrus trees covered in white flowers and bursting with bright yellow lemons all year round. The fruit-laden trees with vivid green leaves not only makes for the prettiest streets but adds a delicate, sweet aroma to the air which stimulates the senses. Seville is simply the most fragrant city you’re likely to visit.

Rooftop tapas

If you’ve never eaten tiny dishes of delight on a rooftop in Seville you’ve not had tapas. Hotel Doña Maria, with its open pool and views over the city, against a sparkling blue sky, would be my first choice. Full-flavoured dishes of mozzarella, foie gras, Jamón Ibérico and gazpacho Andaluz paired with Spanish white and red wine made their way to the magnificent split-level roof top during my visit. It is a place to unwind and take in the city; you may spend a great deal longer here than you intend. Whilst the roof top remains open all year the use of the pool is only between April and September.

Plaza de España

This immense square was built in 1928 to mark the world fair Ibero- American Exposition (1929). Set within its own park, Parque de María Luisa, with tiled bridges, a boulevard and pond it was dedicated to the exhibition of Spain’s industrial and technological triumphs. There are 48 alcoves in a semi-circle around it to mark Spain’s provinces; all intricately decorated in tiles complete with the region’s coat of arms. Today, the offices around the plaza are used by various government departments and the space has evolved into a spectacular tourist attraction. With boat rides, hat sellers and even horse rides to entice visitors. This vast outdoor space, originally designed by Caidon Fox, was my stand-out experience in Seville.

15 reasons why Oman should top your 2020 travel list

The Sultanate of Oman may have missed your radar. This would be by design than accident as the nation shies away from mass advertising. The country is focused on well-executed strategies for attracting higher quality visitors to its shores ; a simple case of quality over quantity. 2019 Expat Insider Report ranked Oman amongst the top ten safest countries in the world. Furthermore, there has never been a terrorist threat here. If these are not good enough reasons to visit here are 15 others why Oman should top your 2020 travel list.

Scenery

The scenery in Oman is unlike anything you might imagine it to be. Flat, arid desert? Not here. Expect views of the dazzling Al Hajar Mountain range to the north and Dhofar Mountains to the southeast. Look forward to magnificently misty backdrops, glistening sunsets and star-lit skies at night. You remain tied to the elements (camera at the ready) no matter where you go.

Wadis

Wadi is the Arabic word for a ravine that remains mostly dry. Oman has a network of ravines that direct rain water from the mountains to the sea. After rain wadis come into their own. The trails, sometimes as much as three metres wide, carry water at break-neck speed to the ocean. They’re a sight to behold (from safety).

Altitude

The region of Jabel Akhdar is 2040 feet above sea level and takes just over three hours, from Muscat, by four wheel drive, to arrive at. However, get here and the region rewards you with the most astonishing experience. Cool nights, dewy sunrises and sounds of nature surround you. The altitude provides a wealth of flora and fauna to thrive creating an unexpected, soft, luscious layer to the scenery.

Hiking

Needless to say say the cooler air and temperature in the mountains makes hiking a pleasure in Oman. Whilst the entire terrain is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles walking is thoroughly encouraged. Set off early and discover hamlets stirring awake at daybreak in time for prayer. Spot hidden waterfalls cascading down to gentle streams and come lunch time stop off for a cool glass of pomegranate juice; a fruit that grows in every front yard here.

Villages forgotten by time

Hire a local guide and explore hidden villages that have long been abandoned but preserved in nature. The village of Bani Habib, in Jabel Akbar, is a great example. Small sticks and clay structures, including a mosque, cling to mountainsides as they have done for centuries. Similarly, ask your guide for a path that cuts through a local village. Low arches, narrow cobbled streets and intricate doorways lead to tiny homes in rural Oman.

Rose gardens

Rose water is used in many Islamic ceremonies. It should come as no surprise that Oman produces its own. Of course in order for there to be rose water there must first be roses. Close to any source of water you will find perfectly-tended gardens basking in the sun, nourished by the weather. They offer a scented addition to an already overwhelmingly beautiful landscape.

Muscat

The capital city of Muscat is your gateway to Oman. This multi-cultural jewel of a city benefits from Oman’s decision not to chase mass tourism. One of the objective of Oman’s Strategic Plan 2040 is to gradually receive 5 million foreign tourists spending more than three nights in Oman. As such, every place of interest remains uncrowded, efficiently-managed and a pleasure to experience. Furthermore, there are no billboards, loud announcements nor distractions that might otherwise take away from the experience.

Old Muscat

A gate and walls, built in 1625, guard the old city of Muscat and separates it from the newer modern one. The coastal road along the Gulf of Oman hugs the Muttrah Corniche where the old city awaits in all its splendour. It’s a step-back to a simpler time before the discovery of oil, in Oman, and the region was the commercial centre. Take a walk along the promenade and relish the sky reflecting against sapphire blue water. Hear the call to prayer from nearby mosques, explore the Muttrah Souk and watch traditional boats arrive and leave the sea port. Take a load off as you delve in to some street food from vendors who entice you with promises.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Any visit to Muscat must include the utterly magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This gift from Sultan Qaboos to his people has a capacity to house 20,000 worshippers. Both the carpet and the immense chandelier in the main prayer hall were the largest in the world until 2007 when they were overtaken by Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi. The Indian sandstone, Islamic architecture, set against blue skies, and the hazy vista of Al Hajar Mountains makes this my number one place to visit in Muscat.

Coffee and dates

At the end of your visit it’s likely that you will be invited for coffee and dates by scholars who occupy a small space within the mosque’s grounds. It would do well to remember that Islam practiced in Oman is Ibadite Islam which mainly advocates tolerance, pacifism and indulgence. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions and a chance to meet locals over a glass of Arabic coffee served with dates.

Mysticism

Whilst religion is pivotal in Omani culture there is also great mysticism in daily life the root of which may be the inescapable daily connection to the elements. Stargazing is a particularly popular pastime and enjoyed by young and old. It’s a skill that is practiced in homes and handed down generations.

Wellness

Wholistic wellness, reflexology and spa treatments in Oman are considered essential part of healthy living. It is said that members of Oman’s Royal Family are ardent followers of the practice. Most hotels offer spas and signature treatments. Based on Omani as well as Ayurvedic and ancient world traditions there is a wide range of treatments from Indian head massages and relaxing full body oil massages to sand treatments formulated from desert sand.

Shuwa

This one single dish makes most other foods pale in comparison. Shuwa is the Omani method of wrapping marinaded meat in palm leaves over night and cooking it in a fire pit for 12 hours. Served with rice and tomato sauce in a large, flat sizzling hot pan, similar to a pallella, the tender meat flakes off on touch. It’s best enjoyed in great company under the stars.

Camping in the desert

Oman makes the most of its abundant scenery to grab the attention of visitors. High sand dunes provide 360 degree panoramic views for perfect luxury desert camps of which there are many. With air conditioning, wifi, great food and hospitable staff camping in the desert is a must-do in Oman.

The desert at night

The perfect way to end your time would be to spend at least one night in a desert resort of your choice. At night the desert becomes a thing of alluring beauty. The lack of artificial light makes constellations in the sky close enough to touch. The air is still and the temperature cool enough to sit on the sand and while away hours in the dark that is only broken by gentle candle-light. In contrast to the searing day-time heat the cooler nights offer balance for an unforgettable travel experience.

I was a guest of Sahab Resort and Spa and Dunes by Al Nahda.