After tourists have exhausted London, their next UK port of call should definitely be Cambridge. Unlike Oxford, which feels like it was designed to appear in film sets and solely appease tourists, Cambridge is every bit an authentic, vibrant and very beautiful University town, that does attract is fair share of visitors in the summer. I spent a lovely day there in August and can vouch for its seductive charms.
I have a confession to make though, as two things brought to Cambridge, not solely the opportunity to view its splendid University Colleges. I was invited to stay at the town’s much hyped Varsity hotel, the first of its kind in the city. Until Varsity opened its doors in early 2011, Cambridge had no real hotels of note, or certainly didn’t have any privately owned, boutique venues with a difference. Yes there is a good Hotel-du-Vin, but they are seeminglyto be found everywhere in the UK and stick to a tried and tested formulae – nice but hardly inspiring.
So the hotel is still a baby, barely two years old. It is to be found in the most nondescript street in Cambridge, a residential area that is, however, conveniently close to the city centre and all its major attractions. In fact, the entrance is so discreet, you could easily miss it. The hotel offers no onsite parking, but the concierge kindly offered to park our car for us and we headed to the infamous roof terrace for a complimentary glass of Champagne while our room was being prepared. If the reception area is small, and a tad cramped then the roof terrace more than makes up for that – large, inviting and offering the most wonderful views of Cambridge and its Colleges. We could have stayed there for hours, its easily the best thing about Varsity by a mile.
Our room (one of 48) was named after an Oxbridge college and had its own little terrace, with views of the – erm – street. OK nothing romantic about that but a great spot for drinking your aperitif before heading for dinner. The room was tastefully decorated in a suitably clean and modern way, slighttouches of kitsch with the wall paper but generally nothing to offend the eye. Very comfortable king size bed too, for those all-important lie-ins. The only downside was the noise from the our neighbours in the next room – the hotel is not terribly well sound-proofed, so light sleepers please take note and pack earplugs. If possible, ask for the highest floor possible, as some guests also reported street noise being an issue, although we had no problem in that department. Those with serious money to burn should ask for a suite in the top two floors of the hotel, which are made entirely from glass allowing for wonderfulviews of this delightful town.
If you (and you should!) leave the comfort of your room, plenty of enticing options present themselves. Cambridge has been an important East Anglian town since Roman times, being located at the first navigable point on the River cam. Today student life dominates the city, but it is also a thriving market centre, with all the usual shopping and nightlife attractions. But, of course, you can do that anywhere. If you are in Cambridge and only have a few hours to spare, then please visits some of the awe-inspiring University Colleges.
Cambridge University has 31 colleges, the oldest being Peterhouse (1284). Many of the older colleges have lovely gardens backing onto the River, my two favourites are St John’s and King’s college. Kings has a beautiful chapel, of the most beautiful small chapels in England in fact, which Henry VI ordered built in the 15th century. If you are short of on time and want to view as many colleges as possible, then rent a punt (a long narrow boat, propelled by a pole) from one of the boat yards along the river, the companies touting their services will happily offer you a driver!
After that bout of site-seeing, a relaxing afternoon in the hot-tub might be just the ticket, right? You’re in luck, as in terms of leisure amenities the hotel is well equipped, their Glassworks Spa is located in an adjoining warehouse building and houses a gym, sauna and 8 treatments rooms for those who need reinvigorating before dinner. The jacuzzi, quirkilyoffers views of the river Cam, you can see passers-by check themselves out in the glass reflection, but I was assured that they could not see us. During our visit it was being renovated so things were a bit messy, this should hopefully be completed soon, I was assured. There is no direct access to the Spa, but thats no big deal as its only a 1 minute walk. Simply leave the hotel and walk around the corner to the health club entrance, which also houses the River Bar restaurant.
Indeed, the hotel’s restaurant, the River Bar Steakhouse and Grill, should not be omitted from this discussion as we enjoyed a very pleasant evening with views over the River Cam. The restaurant specialises in divine rib-eye and sirloin steaks, which didn’t disappoint, full of flavour and perfectly cooked to order (medium-rare) they were a carnivores delight. All washed down with the recommended bottle of Malbec, reliablyfruit forward and concentrated. Service was enthusiastic and efficient throughout.
Breakfast the following morning was a similarlyefficient affair, the food was OK but nothing to rave about. Still, the complimentary wireless internet access throughout the hotel helped to make up for that, as so many places, even über-expensive hotel charge for that privilege. It drives me, and many a hotel guest nuts! Indeed, we British are known for complaining, so I won’t go on – too much – about the hotel’s niggling problems – noise issues, renovation works in the spa and lack ofparking, etc. The Varsity gets much more things right than wrong and that’s without thinking about the terrace. In fact, I’ll think I’ll pop back up for one last drink..
The Varsity Hotel & Spa
24 Thompson’s Lane
01223 30 50 60.
Doubles from £155 per night.