Peter Ormerod reviews The Arden Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon
The timing could hardly be better. The Arden Hotel in Stratford has just undergone a refurbishment - at the same time as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is staging As You Like It, in which much of the action takes place in the Forest of Arden. And like the Bard's mystical woodland, the hotel has a fair few enchantments - and one or two surprises.
The 45-bedroom boutique hotel has much going for it, not least its proximity to the theatre. There's a sense that you could fall out of bed and land on to the stage; it could hardly be any closer. It's the ideal place for a pre-show meal and post-show drinks, with accommodation sufficiently welcoming to encourage many late-night discussions about the company's productions. After all, if you're going to the RSC, you might as well make the most of the experience.
Also greatly in the hotel's favour is its staff. The reception team on our visit were a model of professional efficiency, friendly and courteous without being overbearing. A tour of the building took in its impressive-sounding accessibility, its facilities for businesses and some charming and intimate rooms for those seeking a more private gathering.
It soon became clear that the building has quite a character of its own, which its decor exploits imaginatively. The snaking corridors lend themselves to a striking arboreal theme: they are papered with ghostly images of trunks and branches, with beguiling pictures hung on the walls. Rather than being numbered, the rooms are named after species of tree; we were in Cedar. The whole theme works well and lends the premises much personality. There are delightful architectural features too, from elegantly spiralling staircases to glorious skylights.
The room itself possessed some classy touches, from the cafetiere with good ground coffee to the fresh fruit to the array of publications to read. The King bed felt vast and luxurious. But the bathroom was a truly spectacular affair; I'm sure I've lived in smaller flats. Decorated in a contemporary style in contrast to the more traditional bedroom, it's a haven to savour, with a sleek and invitingly deep bath tub, a walk-in shower, huge mirrors and stylish lighting. The array of lotions and potions was of the highest quality, too.
Meals are taken in the hotel's bright and bold new brasserie. It is perhaps not the most refined setting, but it suited the refreshingly unfussy food at dinner. My broccoli soup was so green it was almost glowing; the flavour matched it for vibrancy. The main course of trout was similarly spirited, with a delicate creme brulee proving a suitably mellow conclusion. The most impressive part of my wife's starter - smoked salmon - was the accompanying toasted gluten-free rolls, which were winningly soft and spongy; this was followed by a pan-fried chicken breast with a mushroom cream sauce, which was delicately delicious, her meal being rounded off with a selection of zingy sorbets. It was all accompanied by a bottle of Cuvee Paul Bocuse, which was pleasingly unobtrusive.
There followed for me a rather sumptuous bath, during which the wine was finished off (the bathroom encourages such indulgence), and then a good night's sleep on the traditionally turned-down bed; it was not necessarily a silent night, but in a property such as this, some sound from neighbouring rooms is perhaps to be expected. Then, suitably rested, it was time for breakfast.
It soon became apparent that the hotel has become a popular place for a morning meal. There was no table spare, but we were perfectly content to be seated away from the main dining area. The fare was the customary mixture of self-service toast (with particularly tasty bread, butter and marmalade), cereals, fruit, yoghurt, cheese and more - a colourful spread indeed - followed by cooked food to order. Perhaps the hotel is a victim of his own success, for the helpful and friendly staff seemed to have rather a lot to do, and may have benefited from a little more help. There was rather a wait for our order to be taken; my full English breakfast was not the most substantial I have eaten, but was enlivened by a sausage of exceptional flavour, if rather diminutive size. My wife's porridge, meanwhile, was unfortunately not the most appetising in appearance, texture or flavour, and was served without the promised accoutrements. I am confident however that these shortcomings will be addressed as the brasserie beds in; the general standard of the hotel is surely too high for that not to be the case.
That being said, I am glad to report that our enjoyment of the weekend remained undiminished. Even though Stratford is but half an hour from our home, it felt like a proper weekend away, and a greatly appreciated break from the busyness of life. There may be a few inconsistencies at present, but when The Arden does things well, it does them very well. And there is every reason to trust it will continue to do so - and do even better.
* Peter Ormerod was hosted by The Arden Hotel, part of the Eden Hotel Collection - a privately-owned portfolio of nine beautiful properties in the UK. The hotel has an enviable location in the historic town of Stratford-upon-Avon opposite the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company Theatres and next to the River Avon. Stay overnight from £119 per room (two sharing), including full English breakfast. Call The Arden Hotel on 01789 298 682(www.theardenhotelstratford.com).