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Shandon Hotel + Marble Hill Beach Dunfanaghy Donegal

A Country Kilometre

There’s a wee drop of aul’ rain in Lifford and it’s bucketin’ in Letterkenny so it is, but by the time we get to Marble Hill the sun is splittin’ the trees. It’s gone from Baltic to boilin’ so it has. All in good time for a dead on wee bite of lunch in Shandon’s overlookin’ the empty beach with not a wee’ne in sight. It’s dead posh. Not like the Carrig Rua Hotel in Dunfanaghy which is dunderin’ inn. Anyone up for a wee trip in Bert’s boat later on Killahoey Beach?

Running out of Ulsterisms it’s time to enjoy a celebratory pescatarian feast in Shandon Hotel which has had the greatest revivification since avocados were mere vegetables or fruit or whatever they used to be. There are views and there are views and there’s the framed golden strand of Marble Hill with the white tipped frothy spray of waves almost lapping up to our table. Across the water on the far side of Sheephaven Bay lies Downings.

Next stop the jolly town of Dunfanaghy. It’s all abuzz around the august Market House. “This Building was erected by Alex Rob Stewart of Ards House AD 1845,” marks a plaque between its first floor windows. On the ground things are more relaxed. There’s a coffee bar, antiques store and yoga venue. And a farmers’ market in the Diamond in front of the Market House.

Opposite the Diamond is McAuliffe’s Craft Shop. It has evolved over four generations of the same family since opening in 1920 as Sweeney’s Drapery. Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal by Harry Percival Swan, 1965, is one of several local interest books for sale. It opens with, “Donegal calls you. Situated in the North Western corner of Ireland it is one of the most fascinating playgrounds in these islands. It is part of the nine Counties of Ulster, and is the largest County in the Province (1,865 square miles). Donegal belongs to Eire, but is separated from it by County Fermanagh. Donegal’s key note is variety.”

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The Dorchester Hotel + Rooftop Restaurant Park Lane London

High Living

We’re the first guests of the new season so the Veuve Clicquot is on ice. Just in time for sunshiny days, The Dorchester Rooftop has reopened for those who like to see the bigger picture, or at least take in a sweeping panorama of the better half of the Capital. We’re going up in the world: a lift to the ninth floor of the hotel opens into a former penthouse which is now a suite of lounges with pleated satin hung walls, deep pile carpet and velvet sofas. The Rooftop Restaurant sweeps around the lounges.

Lunch isn’t cheap, but what price decadence? Executive Chef Jean-Philippe Blondet and Head Chef Bastien Bertaina pass with flying colours: crushed olive amuse bouche; multicoloured seabass ceviche, citrus and cucumber; golden and silvered seabream, fennel and pastis; red berry vacherin. A jazz singer and keyboard player serenades us with “Georgia”, “Love is a Losing Game” and “Isn’t She Lovely”. Just as the waitress gleefully smashes the perfect meringue disc atop our pudding, the singer bursts into a timely rendition of “Oh Lovely Day”. Alfresco lunch reminds us of Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris except this time we’ve been elevated from courtyard to parapet.

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The Megaro Hotel + Magenta Restaurant + Hokus Pokus Alchemy Lab King’s Cross London

Working Magic

Unusually for London, King’s Cross and St Pancras are two major railway stations located next to each other. King’s Cross provides public transport from the English capital to the rest of the country right up to Scotland; the Eurostar links St Pancras to mainland Europe. A transport hub in its fullest sense. Little wonder such a dynamic location has attracted a miniature galaxy of five star hotels. But one stands out: it’s wild, whimsical and whacky. And that’s just the mural cloaking the building’s exterior like a psychedelic Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours.

The Megaro Hotel appeals to the luxury traveller with a sense of fun and an appreciation for the novel. An inscription across mezzanine windows overlooking the entrance foyer reads: “Our hotel was inspired by Victorian quack doctor James Morison who in 1828 opened the British College of Health just a few doors down from here…” The interior is based on, “An alchemy lab, esoteric literature, and an anchoring in King’s Cross heritage.”

“Retro-futuristic steampunk” is the official hotel style. A reimagining of olden days but with advanced technology. Public spaces are filled with cabinets of curiosities and illuminated by neon signs. Chain curtains in one of the Design Room bedrooms continues the engineering theme while stage lights, minibars disguised as speakers and stage platforms acting as headboards pay homage to the nightlife tradition of King’s Cross. Charcoal grey tiled wet-rooms are a pure indulgent touch. Charcoal grey is the new black.

Charcoal is having a fashion moment in culinary circles as well as with interior types and The Megaro Hotel’s recently opened restaurant Magenta is on trend. Charcoal steamed sourdough bread is the first item out of the kitchen for dinner. Magenta has a northern Italy inspired menu curated by Executive Head Chef Manuele Bazzoni. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday with an à la carte menu of two courses for £32, three for £42, or four for £52. But ‘when in Rome’, it would be rude not to opt for the four course evening menu with matching wines for £85. Walk-ins are welcomed at breakfast for an unlimited portioned breakfast costing £25.

There are four evening menu choices for Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, and five for Dolci (four desserts and a cheese board). Beetroot amuse bouches come on charcoal grey plates. Wild sea bass tartare and Sicilian orange gel provide splashes of colour and lightness against black sesame ice cream. Smoked buffalo ricotta and egg yolk ravioli with English asparagus and black truffle contrast texture and flavour, emphasizing the kitchen’s prowess. Good looks and great taste continue with Cornish monkfish cooked over charcoal, barbequed leaks, rock oyster tempura and Amalfi lemon gel. Maldon sea salt and caramel ganache with Vecchia Romagna jelly and Piedmont hazelnut form an edible sculpture. Dinner is all about fresh British produce revved up a notch or two by Italian additions and style: London meets Milan.

The phrase ‘poison of choice’ is played out in The Megaro Hotel’s basement bar. Hokus Pokus Alchemy Lab takes the James Morison theme to its extreme. Staff work their magic conjuring up torched and fizzing cocktails. It’s like being in a time machine reversing to the future. ‘Tempered Prescriptions’ are on standby for those guests who want to enjoy the alchemy without the alcohol. Bar Manager Greg Chudzio explains, “Today, at Hokus Pokus we like our botanicals to be distilled and served with a large lump of ice or at room temperature. While we make no claims of health benefits, we are confident that our potions and elixirs might do wonders to your mood!”

Service in The Megaro Hotel is international, very attentive and well informed. The evening waiter from Seville, Spain, confirms, “We only serve Italian wines. Our restaurant interior was designed by British artist and designer Henry Chebaane. Actually he was responsible for the entire hotel interiors! A magenta coloured butterfly is the restaurant motif.” The Londoner mixologist advises, “I can offer you five different types of ‘potions’. Our flamed potions are heated with fire to bring out the finest aromas! We’ve 41 cocktail recipes and 18 brands of gin.” The breakfast waitress from Marash, Turkey, relates, “This building used to be a Barclays Bank. The yellow brick former bank vault is now a wine cellar. We’ve two first floor private dining rooms: The Mauve Private Carriage takes its cue from a view of St Pancras Station; The Victory Room is named after the state rooms of HMS Victory with a table made from the timber of that historic ship.”

The inscription in the entrance foyer ends with, “What is time? Time is free but it’s precious. You can’t own it but you can spend it. You can’t keep it but you can use it. Time is priceless don’t waste it. It’s time for the weird and the wonderful. It’s time for a drink with friends.” The weird and wonderful Hokus Pokus is the place in King’s Cross for a drink, Magenta for a timely meal, and the timeless Megaro for a luxurious night’s sleep.

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Lavender’s Blue + Skibbereen West Cork

The Capital of the Carberies 

It’s 30 years since our last jaunt but The West Cork Hotel has barely changed – it’s under new ownership (the latest generation of the Murphy family having retired) but there’s still the same relaxed country vibe. Seafood chowder and beer battered fish and chips are served with the obligatory West Coast Coolers in the bar overlooking the old railway bridge crossing the River Ilen. It is what it was.

In his comprehensive 2020 book The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County, Frank Keohane describes Skibbereen as, “A substantial market town, the southernmost in Ireland.” And The West Cork Hotel as, “A four storey, four bay Italianate block built alongside the bridge in 1902. Stuccoed, with string courses and a hipped roof. First floor windows with architraves and flat cornices. Upper floor windows with chamfered jambs. At street level the façade is articulated by pilasters and paired round arched windows.” At four storeys in height, the hotel is a skyscraper in West Cork terms, visible from the fields around. A cast iron balcony stretching across the first floor of the façade lends it a Deep South – America not Ireland – quality.

Why say three syllables when one will do. Skib has gone a tad hipsterish – more of that in a moment – but Dick Draper, the local optometrist who died a couple of years ago aged 104 would still recognise most of it. His friend and fellow Gospel Hall attendee Lillian Clerke is still around. Her very sweet shop (she sold the best clove rock in town) on Bridge Street may have closed but her surname is clear for all to see on the fascia. Our driver from Dolphin Taxis remembers Dick well. Chauffeuring us through the countryside as the hazy pink haloed golden circle of the sun sets, he recalls as a child having an accident and when he woke up in hospital, Dick was praying over him. “A very holy man. Did you know the Brethren have their own separate cemetery in Skib?”

On things hip, there’s a foodie farmers’ market on Saturday mornings in the town centre car park next to Abbeystrewey Church of Ireland. The Methodist Church is now a restaurant; architecturally it’s all show: a tall gabled red brick façade conceals a cement faced low pitched block behind. Trance music vibrates from The Mardyke Maggie antiques warehouse, a treasure trove of bygones ready to be revived. Then there’s the Antiquity Bookshop and Vegan Deli where you can have cruelty free edible treats while browsing for bestsellers. “Skib is the hub for small villages around like Baltimore,” confirms our driver.

Mona Best owns Bridge House, a long low two storey gaily painted bed and breakfast in the heart of Skib. She muses, “My perfect day is a day when I make other people happy; it’s in the giving that we receive. So when people come to stay with me I welcome them to a world full of magic as I like them to enjoy and experience something truly unique and memorable. My home is an installation representing my creative artistic temperament and eclectic bohemian taste for quirky Victorian objets d’art and antique furniture. This is my stage where I take people on a journey and transport them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I’m a fun loving person: I love to entertain and bring happiness into people’s lives. It is not how much we give but how much love we put into giving. Every day is beautiful and it is our responsibility to ourselves to pursue and experience all that is magical and wonderful in our lives.”

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The Evelyns + Wotton House Hotel Wotton Surrey

Very Grand Tour

It’s an absolute hamlet of a house: sprawling’s the word. Every century since the 17th, the Evelyn family enlarged and embellished Wotton House. Following a late 20th century stint as a school for firefighters, it has been a country house hotel of considerable renown and taste. John Evelyn, landscape architect and diarist, created the first Italian Renaissance garden in Britain. It still remains, along with a – what’s the collective noun? – let’s say a feast of streams and bridges and temples and grottoes and griffons. A river runs through it (the Tillingbourne). Although the Evelyns’ kangaroo paddock has gone. Incredibly this is all just an hour’s limo ride from London.

The three storey collegiate looking brick elevations around the entrance forecourt are topped by Dutch Billy gables. The garden front is lower rise in nature, punctuated by chamfered bay windows, and stretching the full length of the terrace. Overlooking the Italian Renaissance garden is The 1877 restaurant and bar. This double space combines a mirrored and frescoed reception room and an adjoining orangery. A plaque over the external door confirms: “Built about AD 1670 by George Evelyn Esquire. Enlarged and restored AD 1877 by W J Evelyn Esquire.” InterContinental Hotels Group has aptly named the bedrooms and meeting rooms after a botanical theme: Geranium; Heather; Hosta; Ivy; Japonica; Magnolia; Marigold; Poppy; Primula; Rose; Tulip; Thistle; Viola; and Wisteria.

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The Garden House + The Big House Beaverbrook Surrey

Journeying Mercies

We’re off to Beaverbrook. Come hail (a lot) or shine (a little) an A Class Mercedes spinning through Surrey on the stormiest day of the year is just what the doctor ordered although possibly not the meteorologist. The gated sprawling estate – legendary hectares of rollingness – is divided into The Haves (see you at The Garden House) and The Haves Even More (we’ll be calling up to see you at The Big House). Ever versatile, we’ll do both. Especially since our guests have travelled 12 hours to make if for lunch.

So what’s the hotel really like? Well, take the terrace of Castle Leslie (County Monaghan), the parterre of Luton Hoo (Bedfordshire), the grotto of Curraghmore (County Waterford), the glasshouse of Walmer Castle (Kent), The Carriage Rooms of Montalto (County Down), the glamour of Corniche John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Marseille) and throw in a larger than life Kensington Palace Gardens villa (London) and you’ll get the picture.

The Garden House staff, led by the stylish restaurant manager from Battersea, are so gregarious that by the dill and beetroot amuse bouches we’re swapping film tips (Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is very watchable but what is Dame Judy’s mangled accent all about?). It’s easy to get into the tongue and groove of rural life. There are more pictures of prize cows on the Farrow and Ball’d walls than a mar’t auction catalogue. Outside the storm is brewing again but we’re in the old fashioned sitting room propped up by Christian Lundsteen cushions and Old Fashioned cocktails. All hatches are battened down… except for The Drinking Hole.

Can life get any better? Yes it can: lunch is being served in the dining room next door. Before long we’re devouring farmers’ helpings of crispy polenta squid with smoked garlic, basil and lime, followed by Dorset halloumi and heritage beetroot with radicchio, date and parsley. Everything, and we mean everything, is freshly wild and wildly fresh. Our well informed waiter tells us about the hotel’s Sir Winston Churchill connection and the Spitfire emblem and the eponymous Lord Beaverbrook but ever so distractingly the restaurant manager arrives with salted chocolate and blood orange petit fours masquerading as “posh Jaffa cakes”.

Forbes, the only other publication to join us a few years ago in Montenegro at the behest of the Government of the former Yugoslavian state, has beaten us to today’s destination. Its verdict? “Beaverbrook is arguably England’s most beautiful new hotel.” Last week’s Sunday Times is almost as glowing, “One of the UK’s top country house hotels.” Scrawled on a blackboard in the glasshouse is a flower recipe, “Wax flower, statis, limonium, gypsophila, spag. moss.” It’s a metaphor for Beaverbrook: classy, quirky and drawing on the best that nature has to offer.

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Kimpton Clocktower Hotel Manchester + Alfred Waterhouse

It is Good to be Here

Superlux brand Kimpton has four hotels on mainland Britain. North of the border, the two hotels are neoclassical: Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, and Blythswood Square, Glasgow. The two south of the border are High Victorian: Russell Square, London, and Oxford Street, Manchester. The late afternoon winter sunlight streaming down makes the terracotta all clear: Kimpton Clockhouse Hotel in Manchester is a panoply of barley twist columns and stylised ionic capitals and naturalistic floral patterns sculpted out of the red stuff, all towering up from the sweet flow of the River Medlock. The brick walls are aglow, on fire, red on red. The trio of buildings which form the hotel are the last bloom of High Victoriana; in fact they’re an overflow of this most dramatic of styles, for the iconic 66 metre tall clocktower was only completed in 1912.

The Refuge Assurance Building was built in 1895 to the design of master of the age Alfred Waterhouse. Architect Paul Waterhouse extended his father’s design and Stanley Birkett completed the vast urban block. Across the city near the Town Hall designed by Alfred Waterhouse is Friends’ Meeting House. It wins the award for most blind windows: just two of the window positions out of 10 on the west facing Southmill Street elevation are glazed. Jean and John Bradburn write in their 2018 Central Manchester History Tour, “This fine building was designed in 1828 by Richard Lane, a Quaker architect – one of his pupils was Alfred Waterhouse. The cost of the building – £7,600 – was raised by subscription from local Quakers, one of whom was John Dalton, the famous chemist and discoverer of atomic theory who worshipped here for years.”

Another famous, or rather infamous, building in Manchester city centre designed by Alfred Waterhouse is HMP Manchester, otherwise known as Strangeways Gaol. It predates the Refuge Assurance Building by three decades. The public facing gatehouse is a red brick building with sandstone dressings. It’s French Gothic in style, as if Château du Nessay had landed on Southall Street. Cassie Britland notes in Manchester Something Rich and Strange, edited by Paul Dobraszczy and Sarah Butler, 2020, “the prison owes its distinctive radial design to the panopticon architectural concept and the ‘separate’ system of prison management”.

Delivering a lecture on The Oratory Competition 1878: Who Were The Architects? at The London Oratory, Dr Roderick O’Donnell states, “Alfred Waterhouse was appointed assessor of the competition to design a new church for The Oratory. He was an interesting choice: a Congregationalist from Manchester. His architectural career started in Manchester with the design of Strangeways Prison. Waterhouse was incredibly ambitious and a fantastic professional; he came in on price. Waterhouse designed the second Victorian Eaton Hall in Cheshire.”

In their 1998 Manchester Architecture Guide, Eamonn Canniffe and Tom Jefferies lead with, “The cutting of Whitworth Street in the 1890s results in a series of large self confident buildings along it. a monument to insurance, the mammoth Refuge Building exploits the full possibilities of architectural ceramics. Its interior employs white glazed brick for the former office space, but the exterior exploits the potential of terracotta for insistent repetitive ornament over large surfaces. Articulated frames to the high windows culminate in barley sugar columns, while the great brick tower is a landmark in many directions. The porte cochère beneath it, with its glazed dome and memorial to the company’s War Dead, is now the reception for the Palace Hotel which currently occupies this dramatic and robust building.”

A cluster of contemporary talent has worked on moulding the Palace Hotel into the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. 3DReid Architects explain, “Our work on the hotel, the former Palace Hotel, sought to strip back poor interventions made in the 1990s and reposition is as a ‘lifestyle hotel’ worthy of the building’s history and character. In the former Refuge Assurance Hall we created a new Winter Garden as the focus of the space, surrounded by a new bar, restaurant and den. This enabled the space to be used as an ‘all day offer’. One of the key moves was improving circulation routes around the buildings that make up the hotel.” Michaelis Boyd were the interior designers and the 360 guest rooms and 11 suites are brightened by Timorous Beasties textiles.

The grander than grand ground floor spaces of the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel are all abuzz: the late afternoon winter sunlight streaming down makes the encaustic tiling all clear – and reflects off the hair curlers in female guests’ emerging hairdos. A bronze horse sculpture by Sophie Dickens, granddaughter of the writer, welcomes visitors in the marble floored stone walled glass domed entrance lobby. Up a few stairs, along a corridor – there are lots of stairs and corridorsc – and the bar and dining room have been branded The Refuge. This 930 square metre space spills into the Winter Garden which was formed by glazing over a courtyard. It is good, oh so good, to be here. Later, the bright and cloudless morning will break, eternal bright and fair.

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Luton Hoo Bedfordshire + Katie Ice

The Franco Files

Hoo’s Who. Seriously. It’s that good. The revivification of Countess Markievicz. Luton is the new Paris. Katie Ice swapped a (not so plain) runway for the (plane) runway. The revolution has begun. Game on. As for that legendary niche leap…. the model as ballerina! The hotel’s all it’s cracked up to be and more. Postcard home material. Luton Hoo is to Luton what Versailles is to Paris. Luton Hoo. The country house that looks like a French hotel and is now a Frenchified hotel. Just when things couldn’t get more glamorous, they do. Katie pulls up in a chauffeur escorted Bentley. She looks, as ever, as if she has just stepped off a Parisian photoshoot. Turns out she has. Lady in red and fuchsia pink. Louis Roederer Brut Premier filled volutes in hand, with a lust for living and a gusto of giving it our all, we breeze through the French doors and begin dancing like dervishes across the lawn, spinning in wonder at the infinite beauty of the place and life itself. Is it a lawn? No, it’s a dancefloor this evening. Is that a path? No, a catwalk. A niche? Podium. Pleasure Gardens? Pleasure Gardens. Luton Hoo is a playground for the beautiful and restless.